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Tapping Early

Mild winter gives syrup producers a head start

February 26, 2012
By MIKE ZUMMO , The Leader Herald

Temperatures have been up and snowfall totals have been down throughout the region this winter, giving area maple-syrup producers an early start on tapping their trees and boiling the sap.

Despite the start, producers are saying it is still too early to tell what effect the mild winter will have on the crop.

"The early start could just mean an early end," said Vernon Duesler III, owner of Mud Road Sugarhouse in Ephratah. "If you get to the middle of March and the ground will start drying out, things will start to show down."

Article Photos

Vernon Duesler III, owner of Mud Road Sugar House in Ephratah, looks at his vacuum release unit with sap flowing from it into a holding tank on his property Thursday.

The Leader-Herald/Bill Trojan

Below-freezing nights followed by warm days are necessary to start the sap flowing from maple trees, a period that usually begins in late February or early March. But those conditions arrived early in some areas, prompting producers to start tapping early this year.

Duesler said normally he didn't start tapping his maple trees until March 6 or 7, with the season running through the first week of April. Thursday, he said Mud Road had made about 70 gallons of syrup.

Steve Savage at Peaceful Valley Maple Farm in the town of Johnstown is way ahead, having already produced about 400 gallons of syrup.

"I made some real nice light syrup on Feb. 3, which is the earliest I've ever boiled, and I've been making syrup for over 20 years."

Below-freezing nights followed by warm days are necessary to start the sap flowing from maple trees, a period that usually begins in late February or early March. But those conditions arrived early in some areas, prompting producers to start tapping early this year.

It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. Last year, U.S. maple production hit an all-time high of 2.79 million gallons, led by Vermont with 1.14 million gallons. Beyond good weather, technology has played a role in the industry's growth, with vacuum tube systems that pull the sap from trees and new taps with valves designed to prevent sap flowing back into the trees.

Duesler installed a vacuum-tube system at Mud Road for this season. He said it lessens the requirement for temperatures to climb to about 45 during the day and drop to about 25 at night.

"With the vacuum system, as soon as the temperatures get high enough, the vacuum will help pull the sap out of trees right away," he said.

Though producers were happy to get a jump-start on the season, it could end early, too, if prolonged stretches of warm weather result in budding trees. That's the main concern throughout the state, where the director of the New York Maple Producers Association has been hearing from plenty of worried members.

"I've had more phone calls this year than I've ever gotten before. Everyone wants to know what everyone else is doing. 'Is it time?' 'Should we tap?'" said Helen Thomas, who set the 1,700 taps on her family's farm about a week earlier than usual.

With so little snow, she worries that all it will take is one warm day in March to trick the trees into thinking spring has arrived. Once trees start to bud, the sap develops an "off" flavor, effectively ending the season.

Bruce Frasier of Frasier's Sugarshack in Lassellsville said syrup producers could be in trouble if some snow doesn't fall.

"It keeps spring away a little longer so the frost doesn't come out as quick, and it keeps the air temperature down," he said.

Glenn Henry of Paradise Sugarhouse in Mayfield said he has seen most of the "myths" about maple syrup dispelled, like needing a lot of snow on the ground to have a good syrup season.

"I don't put a lot of weight behind snow depth," he said.

Henry said there were some warning signs about the winter last fall when the maple trees didn't exhibit as vibrant a fall color as they did in previous years.

"The sugar maples didn't exhibit really good fall color and I'm under the impression that we're going to be dealing with a low-sugar content in the sap because of the summer and the lack of sunlight that we experience last year," he said.

Still, even with the early start, it's too soon for producers to tell what kind of season they're going to have.

"It's certainly going to be easier than it was last year because you're not going to have to wait through all the snow to get there," Henry said. "But it's too early to tell."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

 
 

 

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