Stefan Hard / Staff Photo Burr Morse of Morse Farm Maple Sugarworks checks a tap Tuesday outside his sugarhouse in East Montpelier. The sap was running at Morse Farm on Tuesday, but just barely.
With unseasonably cold weather gripping the state this March, maple sugar producers around central Vermont are holding their breath to see what this year’s season will bring, although they are cautiously optimistic that it could turn into a successful one.
Matt Gordon, executive director of the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association, said the Arctic cold this March will delay the start of the maple sugaring season but that it doesn’t necessarily mean the season will be a bad one.
“It’s definitely going to start later,” Gordon said by phone Monday. “But what’s going to affect the season more is the weather ahead, not the weather we’re already having. But it’s hard to tell.”
Gordon said maple producers are hoping for a slow gradual warming over the next couple of weeks. According to him, the ideal weather for sugaring is temperatures in the 40s during the day and below freezing at night. This combination gets the sap moving in the trees and makes it easier to extract.
Henry Marckres, the Agency of Agriculture’s maple specialist, said he is still anticipating a successful sugaring season this year. Last autumn’s good foliage, which is an indicator of abundant sugar reserves within the maple trees, has him confident in this season’s yield.
Marckres also said there seems to be plenty of water this year, which he said has a lot to do with sap flow inside the maple trees.
“What happens is the water in there goes into the root system and when the weather warms up it brings the water up and picks the sugar up and goes out to the tap,” Marckres said by phone Monday.
Maple sugar producers don’t want the weather to get too warm, however. According to Gordon, if temperatures rise to 60 or 70 degrees, the sap doesn’t flow as well.
The average starting time of the maple sugaring season over the past couple of years has been around the first week of March, Gordon said, with one year’s season starting in February.
However, Marckres stressed that this year’s season is not overly late yet. He said that while the season has started earlier than normal in the last couple of years, before that, production used to start a little after Town Meeting Day.
A normal sugaring season usually lasts around five weeks, Marckres said. Syrup producers typically get the majority of their yield during the 10 to 20 days when the sap runs the heaviest. But predicting when that will be from year to year is anyone’s guess, according to Gordon.
Despite the uncertainty, Gordon said this season could be an excellent one if all of the determining factors go the right way. Gordon said last year was one for the ages, with Vermont making 1.32 million gallons of syrup, the most in the United States by a wide margin. It was the most syrup the state has made since the World War II era, he said.
However, syrup production is fickle. The 2013 boom was preceded by unseasonably high temperatures in 2012, which significantly shortened the sugaring season. According to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report, Vermont maple syrup production was 76 percent lower in 2012 than in 2013.
This underscores the point Burr Morse, the owner of Morse Farm Maple Sugarworks in East Montpelier, makes about trying to predict maple syrup production from year to year.
“I don’t have any projections,” Morse said Monday. “It’s really impossible to tell what’s going to happen before the season starts. It’s up to the weather. We’re all hopeful that this year will be a good one. If it’s as good a season as last year, that would be great.”
Morse agreed with Gordon and Marckres about it being too early to be worried about the extended cold spell.
“Many years we have not made any syrup at this point,” he said. “I’m not concerned about the cold. It’s just a good old-fashioned Vermont winter.”
Morse Farm has started its maple syrup operations by March 16 about half the time in the last 65 years, according to Morse. But it’s not looking likely that the season will start by that date, with a large snowstorm on the horizon this week.
Doug Bragg, the owner of Bragg Farm Maple Sugarhouse in East Montpelier, said he is not concerned about the season yet but that if the winter weather continues too much longer there might be reason to worry.
Bragg Farm usually makes around 700 gallons of syrup annually, he said.
Bragg said the farm’s traditional start time for sugaring has been around March 10 but that it really varies from year to year.
“There have been years when we didn’t really start boiling until March 20,” Bragg said. “The past couple of years the season has been starting earlier, but this winter and spring is a little more what we used to call normal.”
For all the maple syrup fans out there, the annual Vermont Maple Open House Weekend will be March 22 and 23. Sugarhouses around the state will be open to show visitors how syrup is made. For more details visit www.vermontmaple.org/2014-maple-open-house-weekend.
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