By JASON SUBIK
The Leader Herald
For this year's maple syrup crop, the next 10 days will tell the tale.
Vernon Duesler III, owner of Mud Road Sugar House in Ephratah, looks into an empty basin containing frozen water at his business Wednesday. The basin sits below the vacuum releaser, which helps the maple sap flow.
The Leader-Herald/Bill Trojan
Last year at this time, Vernon Duesler III, owner of Mud Road Sugar House in Ephratah, had produced more than 600 gallons of syrup. So far this year, he's produced only 34 gallons. Duesler, a 45-year veteran of maple syrup production, said the brutal winter has kept the maple trees and the ground beneath them too frozen to create sap.
"I think the frost has settled into the ground pretty deep and it's got the root system of the trees froze up and the trees themselves are cold or froze," he said. "Once it gets going, it's going to happen fast and furious, I believe. I'm saying the next two weeks are going to be crucial to whether we have even a mediocre season."
The typical sugaring season of the maple tree lasts about six weeks, from mid-February until early April, but the brutal winter has severely shortened the season this year. Maple trees require freezing cold nights to produce sap, but then need above-freezing temperatures during the day for the sap to run.
Duesler's operation, which has 2,200 taps, uses a vacuum tubing system that has helped increase maple syrup production in recent years by sucking sap out of trees even on days when the sap doesn't want to flow naturally. But even using the vacuum tubing hasn't been enough to maintain production this season.
"I think with everything so cold for such a long period of time, the trees just have not warmed up enough," he said. "Some of the bigger trees, the trees that are 2 to 3 feet in diameter, I haven't got a drop of sap off of any of them yet. They are just froze through to the middle. Until the trees get completely thawed out, they can't build up an internal pressure for the sap to run. The smaller trees are thawed out, but they just aren't sucking up the moisture because some roots are thawed and others aren't and they just aren't sucking up the moisture because it's froze."
Helen Thomas, the executive director of the New York State Maple Producers Association, said maple syrup production has been stymied throughout the state this year by about three weeks of an average year's crop production.
"In western and central New York right now, we have about a third of an average year's crop, and normally by this time, we would have 60 percent of the crop," she said. "It's not that we don't have a chance to make an average year's crop, it's just later."
Her fear now is that the weather will warm up too fast and trees will begin to flower.
"As soon as the buds start growing and get to the point where they are ready to burst, the sap no longer tastes good. It ends up tasting bitter," she said. "You can use that to make commercial syrup, which helps pay the bills, but it's not something the public uses for consumer food.
Duesler said it's possible he may end up selling more commercial-grade syrup this year because of the conditions. He also foresees producing more dark syrup this year. He said darker syrup, which has a more robust maple flavor, occurs when sap lines become warmer. They attract more bacteria, which means the sap requires longer boiling that further caramelizes the syrup. He said improvements in maple syrup technology have enabled more small producers to make greater amounts of lighter syrup, but this year's crop may mean a return to the old days when he made nothing but dark syrup.
"Over the last 15 years, we've made a lot more lighter table-grade syrup. Last year, of the 700 gallons we made, 500 were very light, medium amber," he said. "Later in the season, your sap is warmer and you'll be making the darker syrups."
Duesler said producing more dark syrup could please some customers this year.
"I've seen in the last four or five years that people are coming back to the darker syrups now because it has a better maple flavor to it," he said.
This year's shortened maple season is coming after a very strong maple syrup crop in 2013 when producers in New York state made 574,000 gallons of syrup, up 59 percent from the 360,000 gallons made in 2012. Maple syrup production increased across the U.S. last year and prices dropped in New York to a total value of $15.7 million, down 29 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Thomas said it remains to be seen whether prices will increase this year because so much syrup is produced in Vermont and Canada, which have also had harsh winters.
For 2012, the average price for maple syrup per gallon was $43.50 in New York state. The 2013 average prices have not been released yet.
Duesler said he expects prices will go up.