All sapped out: Weather takes toll on Maine maple syrup makers

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FREEPORT — A warm and relatively snow-less winter is having a souring effect on a sweet early spring tradition in Maine.

As maple syrup producers get ready for the annual Maine Maple Sunday, the president of the Maine Maple Producers Association said last year’s bumper yield of maple syrup will not be repeated.

“It won’t be a banner year,” Gorham resident Lyle Merrifield said. “This may be a about half to three-quarters crop.”

Merrifield presides over an industry association with about 150 members, including three local syrup makers who agreed with his assessment.

“It has been awful,” North Yarmouth resident Elizabeth Noyes said.

Noyes said she and partner Mark Miller made 300 gallons of syrup while tapping 30 trees last year. Encouraged by their success, they tapped 50 more trees this year.

Now she hopes the 80 trees will provide 180 gallons of syrup – 60 percent of last year’s production.

In Freeport, Crawford Taisey said he has already removed his 150 taps from maple trees around town because the sap run has ended. He stopped boiling sap about a week ago.

By the end of the sap run, he said, it took about 100 gallons of sap to boil down to a gallon of syrup. Maple producers typically count on boiling 40 gallons of sap for each gallon of syrup, according to the maple producers association.

Merrifield said he was getting about one gallon of syrup for every 27 gallons of sap boiled. But that was when the sap was running, which did not occur as frequently or abundantly as syrup producers had hoped.

“You can’t fight Mother Nature,” Taisey said. In his 10 or 12 years of tapping trees, he said he has come to expect a yield of 25 to 30 gallons; he got no more than 12 gallons of syrup this year.

Cumberland resident Alan Small works with his father, George, and his son, Jordan, in a sugar house just off Tuttle Road. He is the third of four generations of his family to tap trees and boil sap.

A good maple sap run needs temperature extremes, Small said. But lately, temperatures pushed past 60 degrees during the day, and haven’t fallen enough at night.

“You need a frost, maybe 20 degrees in the morning and then up to 50 degrees during the day,” he said, adding the family has made about 24 gallons of syrup this year. They usually expect to make up to 40 gallons.

Steam and wood smoke rising from sugar houses is as typical a sight in March in Maine as a muddy dooryard. But Small, Noyes and Taisey said they have likely extinguished their evaporator fires for good this year. None of the three will participate in the open houses marking Maine Maple Sunday on March 25.

Maples are generally tapped from mid-February to early March, and a sap run can last until through April under good conditions. Taisey said there might have been a sap run earlier in February, before he began tapping trees.

Once tapped, the sap runs to buckets on trees or through plastic lines to collection points.  Small said his family pours collected sap into tanks in a truck and then pours it into a tank to supply a wood-fired evaporator.

Maple sap is reduced to syrup through boiling. When the sap reaches about 217 degrees, it is drawn off, filtered and bottled as syrup.

To accommodate the anticipated flow from tapping more trees, Noyes said she and Miller bought a larger evaporator. She said they began tapping trees on their farm land as a way to increase all around productivity.

“We are trying to get more edible products,” she said.

A 2011 survey of maple syrup producers by the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed 2011 was good for maple syrup producers, with a 43 percent increase production to 2.79 million gallons.

The nationwide leader in syrup production is Vermont, with 1.14 million gallons produced last year. Maine was third with 360,000 gallons of syrup produced, a 14 percent increase from 2010. In 2009, USDA statistics show 395,000 gallons of syrup were produced in Maine.

Tapping trees, collecting sap and the constant boiling needed during a strong sap run do not make syrup making very profitable even in a good year, the producers said.

But whether they have been at it for a couple of years or a couple of decades, it is a ritual that carries its own pleasures.

“I like being outside, and to take a raw products from a tree to make something delicious just boggles my mind,” Taisey said.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or [email protected]. Follow David on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Sidebar Elements

The buckets in front of a Cumberland home once owned by Alan Small’s uncle are all that remains of sap collecting efforts this year. “You have to have a good snow base,” Small, left, with his son Jordan, said about conditions for a prolonged sap run to make maple syrup. “You need a frost, 20 degrees in the morning and then up to 50 in the day.”

Cumberland resident Alan Small is taking apart the equipment used to boil maple sap into syrup because warm weather ended the sap run early this year. His family has been making syrup for four generations. This year’s yield was 24.5 gallons, down from 40 gallons in 2010.

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.