Syrup makers toil this winter
Tree cycles disrupted, some consider sitting this year out
Across the region, record winter temperatures are wreaking havoc with maple tree systems, forcing syrup producers to tap trunks early in the hope of catching the best, most sugary sap before it disappears with spring.
At least one producer in Massachusetts, Turtle Lane Maple Farm in North Andover, has decided not to tap its trees because the unusual weather has affected the trees’ sugar, making the production of syrup too onerous and costly.
“With the energy cost and labor, it just wasn’t worth tapping 500 trees and gathering the sap and boiling it down,’’ said Paul Boulanger, who owns the farm with his wife.
Normally, he said, sap content in his trees is 4 percent sugar; this year it is 1 percent, meaning that he would need to boil down 90 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of maple syrup, rather than the average 43 gallons.
Scott Soares, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources, said warm weather has made the maple season difficult to predict. Last year proved to be a record year, with 62,000 gallons of maple syrup produced in the state. But the year before, Massachusetts produced just 29,000.
“This year we could see a real big impact, but we don’t know, because we’ve never seen anything like this,’’ he said, referring to the warm temperatures. Nevertheless, he said, sugar house activities are in full swing across the state.
New England is the nation’s wellspring of maple syrup. Last year, New England-produced maple syrup accounted for 61 percent of the nation’s supply of the sweet stuff, with Vermont leading all states, turning out 1.14 million gallons, according to US Department of Agriculture statistics. New York was in second place, followed by Maine in third, New Hampshire tied for sixth, Massachusetts in ninth, and Connecticut in 10th, the statistics show.
Sap flows best on warm, sunny days followed by nights that dip below freezing. The fluctuations are key: Cold nights contract air bubbles within the tree, producing suction that draws sap from the ground into the tree, where it mixes with sugar and freezes; warm days thaw the sap and expand the air bubbles, creating pressure that makes the sap flow into buckets or tubing, said Tim Perkins, director of the University of Vermont Proctor Maple Research Center, who has studied climate change’s impact on the maple industry.
Perkins predicts that climate change over roughly the next hundred years will result in the loss of maple trees across much of New England, according to congressional testimony he offered in 2007.
For producers, it is crucial to tap the first flow because it generally contains the highest sugar content and thus yields the best syrup. When temperatures stop falling below freezing at night, sap stops flowing, bringing the sugaring season to an end.
In recent years, sap has begun flowing earlier in many areas, with this year marking record starts for some producers.
This year, New Hampshire producers have seen good flow in some places, but spotty production in others, said Vickie Smith, a maple inspector whose job includes visiting sugaring houses and inspecting their maple syrup to test flavor, color, and density.
“The sap runs haven’t been consistent,’’ she said, though she said this week’s weather has so far been good for sap flow in New Hampshire.
In Vermont, Tim Wilmot, a University of Vermont Extension maple specialist, said, “People started a little earlier because we’ve had a lot of weather that is conducive to sap flow.’’
Data show that syrup producers there are starting about seven days earlier than they did 40 years ago. They are also finishing 10 days earlier, as the season has shortened by 3.2 days, or nearly 10 percent.
On Wednesday, Maine ceremonially kicked off the sugaring season with the tapping of a maple tree at Blaine House, the governor’s residence.
The ceremony’s timing was typical, said Mike Marchetti, marketing director for the Maine Department of Agriculture. But he said there has already been some early and sporadic tapping of trees in southern Maine.
“Maple is funny; it’s so dependent on the weather,’’ he said. “It’s been a strange winter, so it’s a wonder how Mother Nature is going to react to it.’’
Some of the 300 Massachusetts syrup producers have had good luck so far this year, Soares said. “Producers in elevations of 1,500 feet and up - the northern belt across the Commonwealth - have seen good production,’’ he said. Elsewhere, he said, sugar content has been reported low, though producers were proceeding with plans to tap trees.
Soares said maple syrup sales generate $3 million in revenue annually. The farms see an additional $2 million each year from agricultural tourism, which includes sugar house activities like pancake breakfasts.
Boulanger, who has owned Turtle Lane Maple Farm since 2004, said he has never confronted a scenario like the one his trees have presented this year.
“We’ve talked to old-timers too, and they’ve never seen anything like this before,’’ he said.
But they are pushing forward with tours of the farm, complete with exhibitions of syrup making, albeit using sap made from maple syrup and water.
“We’re remanufacturing what Mother Nature gives us naturally,’’ he said.