Slow maple season but sweet to last drop
Different grades of maple syrup are lined up in jars according to the dates they were harvested this season at Boyden Brothers Maple in Conway.
Jeanne Boyden of Boyden Brothers Maple in Conway fills jugs with the season's last batch of maple syrup on Tuesday.
Howard Boyden of Boyden Brothers Maple in Conway pours his last full bucket of syrup this season into the filtration system at the sugarhouse on Tuesday. Boyden says he has no complaints about the 650 gallons of syrup they produced this season -- down to this last bucket it has been a rich quality, with great flavor.
The 2014 sugaring season is wrapping up as relatively short but sweet, after a late start that followed an unusually cold winter.
One last expected overnight freeze tonight should collect any sap flow around Franklin County, where maple producers Tuesday were beginning cleanup from a season that several admitted wasn’t as bitter as they expected.
“If you’d asked me a week ago, I would have told you it was a disaster,” said Colrain maple producer Chip Hager. “But it kind of pulled itself out here in these last few days. It was pretty weak and simple until this last week, and now it’s been pretty steady. We’re still boiling, but it looks like it’s winding down.”
Hager, who has about 6,000 taps, figures he’s made about 75 percent of what he produces in a normal season and may wind up with 2,000 gallons overall. Those 6,000 taps produce more sap than 10,000 used to in the same sugarbush thanks to newer technologies like vacuum collection, which literally sucks the sap out of trees.
Overall, sugarmakers who had tapped early and were “ready to go” with those kinds of vacuum systems were able to take advantage of barely freezing nights early on. They did better than those using gravity-fed systems, said Winton Pitcoff, coordinator of the 250-member Massachusetts Maple Producers Association.
“There are people who made plenty of really nice syrup,” said Pitcoff, based on informal conversations with members spread around the state. “It’s not the best year ever, but it was by no means a disaster. There were some people who caught a run the last weekend of February, then it definitely froze hard and stayed frozen for us most of March.”
Weird? Sure, says Pitcoff, but he adds, “Every year people say it was a weird one. It’s part of agriculture in general, especially for a part of agriculture that’s very dependent on the transition between seasons instead of the nice consistency of a mid-season kind of crop.”
Pitcoff, who each year faces a horde of media prognostication queries about what kind of season it will be, says, “I started getting calls from all over the second week in March saying they’d heard there was no syrup.”
It’s never that simple, he said, and rarely that dismal. Despite a smaller yield, producers report the quality has been good, with excellent flavor.
“We have these microclimates, so some days folks down in the valley were making a lot of nice syrup, while people up in hills were still frozen solid, and now people in the valley are closer to being done than those up here in the hills,” Pitcoff said. A Heath syrup maker told him a few weeks ago that he’s only made 50 percent of what he usually did, and he’d be happy with half a crop. Now, Pitcoff said, he’s made 75 percent.
Ashfield producer Tom McCrumm, who expected tonight’s freeze will produce the final surge of syrup on Thursday, said he hopes to make about 1,000 gallons this year, down from the 1,200 to 1,300 in a normal year.
“We had one of the latest starts I can remember,” said McCrumm. “For Franklin County hilltowns, April 8 is about the time we usually end.”
McCrumm, who ended his final year of running the Southface Farm restaurant on Sunday, said business was probably hurt early on by would-be customers who heard the sugaring season got a late start.
“You don’t need sap to make pancakes,” said McCrumm.
Shelburne’s Davenport Farm, which produced a little more than half its normal yield of about 800 gallons of syrup and is about ready to call it a season, reported “a tough season” at its restaurant.
“We never really had the ideal ‘Let’s go to a sugarhouse’ weekend,” said Norman Davenport of the restaurant season that wrapped up Sunday. “It was still wintry out, there was cold weather. Last Sunday was the only day of the six weekends that really felt like a ‘Let’s go to a sugarhouse and see what’s going on’ that really brought the people around.”
Davenport said that beginning around March 1 with about 600 taps, “enough to give us a read on whether we were getting any sap flows, it was three weeks before we got too concerned about tapping any more than that.”
It wasn’t until about April 1, he said, that the trees began to thaw out enough to tap another area.
Williams Sugarhouse in Deerfield, which began pulling buckets off the trees Monday, produced just 60 percent of what’s considered normal, said Sandy Williams.
“The weather was just too cold. And when it did warm up, it didn’t get cold enough at night.”
In Heath, Mike Girard of Girard’s Sugarhouse said he’s produced about 185 gallons of syrup so far from his 900 or so taps, and between the 800 gallons of sap he still has and may collect after tonight’s expected freeze, he might make it to 200 overall — about 80 percent of a normal year.
“I’ve heard a lot of people just below us are done,” Girard said. “We’ve still got snow.”
On the Web: www.massmaple.org
You can reach Richie Davis at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269