Time to make the syrup: Maple producers prepare for sugaring season, likely at least a week away

Wednesday, March 05, 2014
It has been a particularly frigid winter and most people are wishing for warmer weather. That includes area maple producers, who dream of 45-degree days and 20-degree nights — the temperatures needed for sap to start running — which have so far eluded them.

“We usually try for the last week of February, but a week like this is just too cold,” said Stanley Zawalick, who runs Zawalick Sugarhouse on Sylvester Road in Northampton with his son, Michael.

According to weather forecasts, it will stay too cold to sugar through at least March 7. While that means a late start to the season for producers in the low-lying areas of Hampshire County, many sugarers in Franklin County said they are accustomed to seeing the mercury stay below 40 in the first half of March.

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Lisa Davenport of Davenport Maple Farm on Tower Road in Shelburne said Thursday that the sugaring season was at least a week away in her neck of the woods — and that’s fairly standard.

“It’s normal to not start boiling here till the second or third week of March,” she said. “We’ll probably start tapping this coming week.”

A good sugaring season will last into the beginning of April, but once the weather warms and maples start to bud, the season is over because sap becomes bitter. A season shorter than the usual six to eight weeks is bad news for producers who rely on the income from the syrup.

“Every year it’s a dance to tap at just the right time,” said Patrick Delaney, who runs a Belchertown sugarhouse called Occasional Creek Maple with his wife, Sara Delaney. Tap too early and you run the risk that the trees’ healing could slow down the sap flow if the season goes late, he said.

Still, Davenport said she and her fellow sugarers are experienced optimists. “Stressing doesn’t help because it doesn’t change the weather. We just try to prepare enough so we’re ready when it does warm up,” she said.

They have plenty of work to finish before the thaw, including setting up sugarhouse equipment, stacking firewood, tapping trees and digging the tubing that runs between trees out from under the snow.

Waiting for warmth

In an interview Tuesday, Zawalick said he has set up the equipment in his sugarhouse and expects he and his son would finish setting their 2,500 taps in the coming week. “The snow makes it harder to tap trees, and you have to dig out places to put tanks,” he said, estimating he has 1½ feet of snow on his property.

In a good year — which most Valley producers reported having last year — Zawalick’s Sugarhouse makes between 750 to 1,000 gallons of syrup. “Last year was ideal. Most producers did pretty well except for a few cold pockets up in Worthington and places like that,” he said.

Up in Worthington this week, Brian Rowe of High Hopes Farm Sugarhouse said the cold weather was delaying the start of the season. But he hopes the snow may help stretch out the season on the other end.

“One thing we’ve got going for us is the snow pack,” he said. “It’s been a pain to get around in the woods to tap with the snow, but a lot of times later in the season, the snow will keep the ground from warming up too soon.”

The cold that has been keeping sap from flowing did not stop people from flooding their sugar shack restaurant on Huntington Road on opening weekend Feb. 22 and 23. “People are just itching to get out and do something,” he said.

As usual, the Rowe family is using last year’s syrup in the restaurant, which Rowe said is the only all-you-can-eat buffet-style sugar shack in the area. Diners there consume about one-quarter of the 400 gallons the farm produces from 2,800 taps.

At Davenport Maple Farm, Lisa and Norman Davenport have been preparing for the restaurant’s opening Saturday. Lisa Davenport posted on the farm’s Facebook page Thursday that she needed to bake 30 loaves of cinnamon raisin bread for the diners who would come to eat this weekend.

She said the cold weather affects the restaurant a little. “A lot of people know it’s the start of the season and they come just because they like the pancakes. But definitely when the weather warms up, we see a lot more people,” she said.

The farm puts out 3,500 taps and produces about 750 gallons of syrup annually.

Whately Highway Superintendent Keith Bardwell, who also runs Brookledge Sugarhouse, finished setting 1,200 taps on his Haydenville Road property a week ago. That means he was able to take advantage of the over 40 degree temperatures Feb. 22 and 23 and get “a little” sap, which he boiled Monday.

But now the sap tanks are empty and his evaporator is sitting idle. “I guess it was an opportunity to make sure everything was working OK,” he said of the single day of boiling. “I’ve been doing this for a long time and I usually say we start tapping around President’s Day week.”

Bardwell said he made over 500 gallons last year, which puts the season in the top two or three in terms of production. So far, it doesn’t look like this year will be a repeat. “I’d love for the weather to be ideal, but there’s nothing I can do to change it,” he said.

The Delaneys at Occasional Creek Maple have not started tapping or boiling yet, but they have been selling syrup. They run their small sugaring operation by pre-selling the syrup before the season starts and then starting to fill the orders about two weeks after they start boiling.

Like a Community Supported Agriculture or CSA share bought from a farm in the spring, it puts money in their pockets at the beginning of the season, when they need it for new equipment and supplies, said Patrick Delaney.

“Our customers are kind of making an investment in our operation,” Delaney said. “It’s allowed us to get an idea of how much syrup to make before we start, and we can offer people a deal.” He said the various sizes of jugs are usually about $2 cheaper in pre-sale.

He has yet to set the 100 taps on his and his neighbor’s properties on Daniel Shays Highways, but said the season doesn’t seem that late to him.

On Nelson Road in Colrain, Bill Schneider of Browning Brook Maple was also unphased by the cold start to March. He hasn’t set any taps yet. “I probably won’t start for at least a week and a half,” he said.

Schneider said that because he uses buckets instead of pipelines, which create a seal with the wound in the tree, it is better for him to wait until the last minute to tap.

“The open air will start to dry the hole out quicker,” he said, which means it will stop producing sap sooner. “I usually wait until I see optimum temperatures or close to it.”

He said the syrup comes out better when he uses buckets, because bacteria would start to grow in the pipelines on warm days. “It’s a lot more labor,” he said, because he has to trudge through the snow to all 450 buckets and carry the sap to a tank in his truck bed. “But it’s worth it if it means making a better product.”

Like a lot of people, he also just can’t get enough of the traditional New England winter scene of metal buckets hanging from maple trees in snowy woods. “I like the way it looks with the buckets on the trees,” he said.

“You can hear the ‘plink, plink, plink’ of the sap hitting the bucket,” he said. “If you’re really quiet.”

Rebecca Everett can be reached at reverett@gazettenet.com.