WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Since last month's late-night fire destroyed the sugarhouse and barn at Sweet Brook Farm, the family has been comforted by the support of the community.
On Saturday, the community will have another chance to show how much it cares.
Family and friends of Peter Phelps, owner of the South Williamstown farm, will hold a potluck supper and fundraiser for Sweet Brook at First Congregational Church from 6 to 9 p.m.
"Oh my goodness, I can't believe how generous our community is," said Sarah Lipinski, Peter's daughter. "It's so comforting, and it really has softened the blow of all this to know so many people support us."
The day after the Feb. 25 blaze, a Gofundme.com page was set up to support the farm's recovery effort. As of Thursday morning, the campaign had raised 91 percent of its $15,000 goal.
But the donations are just part of the effort to rally around the farm.
Hancock's Ioka Valley Farm and Williamstown's Fairfield Farm each lent Phelps equipment to help him maintain some semblance of the farm's successful sugaring operation. His former wife, Beth, was able to take in the alpacas who needed to be evacuated from the structure on the night of the fire.
"They were a little scared," Lipinski said of the animals. "We had to walk them by the rubble. … And they were a little singed.
"But they didn't get away. They were in the paddock the whole night. We didn't have to chase any down, which was a relief."
Lipinski said she is hopeful that any fire damage to the alpacas' coats will grow out before their regular shearing in May.
Of more immediate concern was the sugaring season, which was just getting underway when fire destroyed the sugarhouse on Feb. 25. The farm lost its evaporator, a new reverse osmosis filtration unit, all its half-gallon bottles, its caps, its labels and other equipment. In addition about 600 gallons from the 2018 season — nearly half a typical crop for the operation — were lost in the fire.
Fortunately, Lipinski said, the farm had recently made a delivery to Guido's Fresh Marketplace, to which Sweet Brook supplies syrup for the retailer's private label. And the blaze did not affect the tubing in the woods used to collect the sap.
But gathering the sap now posed a new challenge.
All those tubes ran to an underground line, and the liquid was drawn by a vacuum pump, which was destroyed, to a sugarhouse, which no longer exists, so it could be filtered and eventually boiled, Lipinski said.
Now at the site where a large barn once stood, there is a humble shack housing a vacuum pump borrowed from Ioka Valley, she said. Williamstown's Fairfield Dairy Farm loaned Sweet Brook a tanker truck that it will fill with sap, which then will be transported to Ioka Valley for processing into syrup.
"Ioka will truck it to their farm and boil it and give us back a percentage of the maple syrup," Lipinski said. "It will work out really well. We're hoping we can buy back the other percentage from Ioka as we get income rolling in from our regular customers."
Lipinkski's husband, Darryl, is "pretty handy," she said, and he was able to get the temporary vacuum pump running.
Things are looking as good as can be expected for the 2019 maple crop. But the long-term plan for the farm is yet to be determined.
"It's hard for my father to think about because he spent 12 years building all this and creating it from nothing," Lipinski said. "He's questioning whether there's a long-term plan. We had a succession plan for him to retire [and the Lipinskis to take over]. It's too soon to tell what will happen."
Meanwhile, the community support helps keep up the family's spirits.
That is what this Saturday's event is all about.
Lucy Rollins is a family friend. She and her partner lease and farm land on the Phelps property. Her own operation was not affected by the fire, but the Williams College grad was affected by the family's loss.
"It was so intense to see him going through that," Rollins said.
Along with other organizers, she reached out to First Congregational Church about hosting the community event, and Bridget Spann, an official at the church and a farmer herself at Caretaker Farm, helped with outreach efforts.
"We're setting up 50 or 60 chairs, and I'm sure those are going to fill up," Rollins said. "We're going to have a donation table with a jar for cash. We'll accept checks, and I'll figure out how to get a swiper for [credit] cards. People are welcome to come and not donate, though. The point is to get together as a community and have that support."
That comfort and concern started the night of the fire when word spread throughout the community and has not let up since.
"It's been really wonderful," Lipinski said. "People have been extremely supportive.
"We're really looking forward to coming back in the summer — my husband and I — and doing the farmers markets this year. We're excited to be able to come back like nothing happened."
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