1/4/2014 7:00 AM
By Leon Thompson Vermont Correspondent
HIGHGATE, Vt. — August 10 was one of northwestern Vermont's hottest days in 2001. Karen Fortin remembers it well, especially the smoky odor that bugged her nose for most of the day.
As she was blowing up balloons for the 10 children she expected at her son Jonathan's eighth birthday party, a fire investigator conducted a routine barn inspection at Carman Brook Farm, which she owns with her husband, Dan.
"You've got a real nice barn, here," the inspector said. "For an old barn, it's a nice facility."
No one knew a fire smoldered. Earlier that day, during a sawdust delivery, a freakish metal-to-metal connection ignited a spark. The barn was gone the next day.
Survival has been at the heart of Carman Brook Farm ever since Dan Fortin's great-grandparents, Jeremie and Mary (Fournier) Fortin, emigrated to Highgate, Vt., from Napierville, Quebec — about 30 miles north — in 1911.
Today, Carman Brook Farm is a family owned and operated, diversified agriculture venture with dairy, maple, and retail, all on the same 700-acre tract that five generations of Dan Fortin's family has farmed for a century.
Carman Brook Farm is so close to Canada, on a dirt road named for the Fortins, that its location warrants a double-sided business card in English and French.
"I hope to live here for the rest of my life," said Dan, 59, a few hours before a holiday party at his brother's home the prior weekend weekend, as a treacherous ice storm slowly passed through northern Vermont.
The holiday season is busy at Carman Brook Farm, and credit goes to the Fortins' top seller, both online and inside their store: their maple candy.
"We have the best maple candy," said Levon Fortin, 21, one of Dan and Karen's four sons, while baking with his mother in The Sugarhouse Kitchen, which is attached to the store. "We have it down to a science."
Around Halloween, Karen and Levon Fortin were prepping a new product for the holidays. Maple candy is usually made with fancy grade syrup, Karen explained, as Levon poured batches of their new creation into holiday-shaped molds.
However, the Fortins discovered that, by using Grade B syrup, there is a more distinctive maple flavor, not the ultra-sweet taste that can make just about any set of teeth dance for what seems like days.
"The response has been good," Karen Fortin said. "We invested in a bit more equipment for this."
Levon Fortin returned home in late 2012, after working and traveling in Pennsylvania and Colorado for a year. He has taken a leadership role on the maple end of Carman Brook. He helped overhaul the Web site, learned to make candy, and found his voice in developing new products.
"We've made him hit the ground running," Karen Fortin said of Levon. "He brings new energy to the business."
Levon and his brother, Jon, 20, are the only sons still on the farm. Jameson Fortin, 28, is a recently married pipefitter. Nathaniel Fortin, 23, is a U.S. Army helicopter pilot.
Jon Fortin and part-time employees milk 85 of the 180 head at Carman Brook Farm. The Fortins ship more than 2 million pounds of milk a year to the St. Albans Cooperative Creamery, about 12 miles south.
Carman Brook Farm has another unique component: a set of caves that Dan Fortin estimates were formed about 13,000 years ago, when glaciers melted in the region, and Lake Champlain was much higher and larger than today. The caves are open to the public.
Rural legends swirl around the caves; the most common are that they were inhabited by Native American Abenaki settlers, the first people known to inhabit Vermont, and that they were later used to smuggle contraband in and out of Canada — and, some say — perhaps even slaves through the Underground Railroad, which also ran through northwestern Vermont.
In 2001, a group of pygmy visitors that toured the U.S., looking for sacred sites of local natives, visited Carman Brook Farm and spontaneously broke into song. Chills swept across each witness there.
"It was amazing to watch and hear," Dan Fortin said. "There are so many stories about those caves."
Jeremie Fortin had tried America once already. In the late 1880s, he ventured to Rhode Island and worked in mills with three of his sons, including Alfred, Dan Fortin's grandfather, who only went as far as second grade in school.
A priest nudged the Fortins toward Alberta, Canada, with promising visions of prime farmland.
"Back then, the attitude was, 'Go West and get rich, young man!'" Dan Fortin said. "But when they got there, the land and infrastructure weren't there. Instead, they lived in a sod house for a year, and then they headed to Highgate."
Jeremie Fortin had a stroke at age 50, so Alfred assumed the Highgate farm, while Jeremie lived there as an invalid for the next 20 years.
Dan Fortin assumed Carman Brook Farm from his late parents, Gilles and Angele Fortin. Angele also hailed from Quebec, Canada. She died from breast cancer in 1987. She was 56.
"We weren't poor," Dan Fortin said, noting that his family still lives in the original farmhouse. "We had plenty of food, and we were comfortable, but there was never any affluence, here. We've done lots of work on this house over the years, and we've never found a bunch of money stored in the walls."
Of all the innovations that have entered the dairy industry since the Fortins settled in Vermont, Dan remembers the simple ones on Carman Brook Farm, such as the change from milk cans to bulk tanks, and the switch from horses to tractors.
In recent years, Dan Fortin started applying organic fertilizer to his fields, to retain healthier nutrients in the soil, and to keep unwanted nutrients from running off into nearby Carman Brook, the namesake of the Fortin farm.
"You have to be careful today," Dan said, "and it's not very hard to do."
Dan Fortin was the first of his farming ancestors to diversify to maple, as late as the 1990s, when the price of milk sank. Hardwoods in that area were historically used to fire kilns for local limestone quarries, so the Fortins lacked a mature maple sugar bush.
Maple sugar production had always been one of Dan Fortin's goals at Carman Brook Farm, and Karen wanted something to do while her children were in school. She stopped milking cows in August 2012, to focus fully on maple retail.
The Fortins spent five years implementing a forest management plan and started with 650 taps; today, they have close to 11,000. Retail maple sales helped Dan and Karen pay bills as they rebuilt from the 2001 fire.
Carman Brook Farm markets syrup toward private and retail sales. Their smaller bottles earn space in lots of gift baskets. The Fortins also ship overseas. In November 2012, their Web site had views from more than 20 countries.
"Our maple end has loads of potential," Levon Fortin said.
Dan Fortin still enjoys farming, but he admits he is "past (his) prime." His milking days behind him, he now gleans joy from watching Levon and Jon work on Carman Brook Farm.
"The purpose is to pass it on to the next generation," Dan said, "whichever way is best."