Meet the Maker: Kate Whelley-McCabe, Maple Maker and Breaker

Meet the Maker: Kate Whelley-McCabe, Maple Maker and Breaker

“I like to move quickly and break things and follow through with ideas,” says Kate Whelley-McCabe, co-owner of Vermont Evaporator. “And I think the most exciting thing that you can do is to make something where nothing was before.”

Kate’s entrepreneurial journey began seven years ago, in 2016. “When we started this company,” she says, “my kids were like four and seven, and we had been raising them in a two-earner household where we both had full-time, legal jobs. Was that going to work for us? Not under the best conditions.”

She was working as a lawyer in the Vermont State Attorney General’s office and had decided it was time to make a change. She had the itch to do something else, and actually thought she would end up running a nonprofit.

But then the maple trees had their say.

A few years earlier, Kate says, they had moved their family “from a house on the sidewalk to a 10-acre parcel, both in Montpelier. And we noticed pretty soon after moving in that we had a really nice sugar stand kind of across the stream and up the hill.” And, given that her husband Justin (also an attorney and also a chemical engineer) is “a serial hobbyist,” they decided to give maple syrup a shot.

“And the first year,” she says, “we made three quarters of a gallon of the darkest syrup that you've ever seen using a hundred dollars worth of propane on our grill using the Thanksgiving Turkey pan.” And Justin said “oh, that's not good enough.” He decided to figure something else out. They scoured the market and found that there was no simple, attractive, cost-efficient evaporator for hobbyists short of rather expensive options that also required building a sugarhouse.

So Justin invented The Sapling, “a portable, easy to use, versatile wood evaporator for maple syrup making,” as Kate describes it. And what makes the unit unique is that, “In the off season, the pan pops off of the barrel-shaped unit, and you can put on grill grates and a grill lid, use a pizza stone, and you can bake, smoke, and grill foods—so it’s not just something that people can use a couple of months a year.”

Having invented The Sapling for their own use, the couple decided to see if others thought it would be useful, and shopped it around on Craigslist and some maker fairs. There was considerable interest in the product, so they started taking orders and set up a business. As you do.

Soon enough, the business had branched into kits so that people could make the off-season conversions with their Saplings. Then, Kate says, they got into supplies – “everything from tapping, drill bits, tapping hammers, taps, lines, buckets—everything that you need, storage for your sap, so storage containers and thermometers and filters.” Now they are a one-stop online shop offering about 80 products for maple hobbyists who have 10-100 trees and are making one to 10 gallons of syrup a year.

What Kate loves about being an entrepreneur and a maker is that “it's creative and in all sorts of different ways—the sort of diving into an unknown area and having to get familiar with a lot of things quickly, and that's every day for an entrepreneur. The pace of learning is really stimulating. And then also bringing something to life that wasn't before...”

She also loves just the variety and the testing yourself. “You have to wear a lot of hats when you're small,” she says. “I think I give myself more grace when I'm doing something that's extremely difficult and new. I give myself more permission to screw up. I enjoy making mistakes, I guess, in a context where it's expected and productive to do so. Nobody can do this. There's no roadmap for how to do this perfectly, and therefore I am released from having to be perfect.”

That has led to some experimentation and flexibility with work schedules. “One of the reasons that this entrepreneurism worked out for me,” Kate says, “is because at that time I needed that flexibility. Somebody needed that flexibility. And so I took it, to make sure the kids had what they needed when they needed it. And I've passed that on to my employees. I've never hired anybody that isn't the backstop parent or the backstop caregiver for a member of their family. And what I mean by that is the person that works close to where the kids are and has a flexible schedule. So we have ultimate flexibility here.”

This fall, Vermont Evaporator launched its newest innovation, The Sugar Cube: a small, plug-and-play reverse osmosis unit designed with hobby sugarmakers in mind. When working through the product development, the team decided it had to be dead simple, with few moving parts, Kate says. “You plug it into the wall, and then you also plug in some tubes to it, and then you press go and it goes. It's like a toaster. You don't have to know what all those wires in there do. You just know you put your bread in there, and you get your little setting, and you put it on, and it works. But also, we've added a UV filter to the mix of filters, so that there's a longer shelf life for the sap. And that works for hobbyists, because we're boiling on weekends, and the odd Wednesday that you can take off during March and April or February, March, depending on where you are in the country.”

So what’s next for the maker and breaker? “I would love to innovate to become more inclusive of more suburban and urban makers,” says Kate. “It's a good business move for us, because there's more people in suburbs and cities. It's a good business case for us because there isn't anyone else paying attention to those folks.”

The Vermont Maker Project

Telling stories about makers across the state of Vermont. Stories and photos by StoryWorkz. Flannel by Vermont Flannel. Learn more at

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