How will the warm winter impact maple season?

By Mounira Al Hmoud

BOSTON – With wintery temperatures largely a memory this year, the lack of “sugar weather” is threatening to reduce the production of maple syrup and raise its price.

“The production depends highly on cold and light. Trees do need a good hard freezing period that would help turn sugar into something that may produce maple syrup,” said Winton Pitcoff, coordinator of the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association. “We’ll just have to wait and see how it goes.”

Although Massachusetts’ maple sugar industry is dwarfed by Vermont and New Hampshire, it still represents an important economic factor in the state. Each year some 60,000 tourists each year spend $1.9 million during the sugaring season at the state’s maple farms and restaurants, bed-and-breakfasts, country inns, and other attractions, according to Massachusetts Department of Agriculture Resources website.

“There are about 300 producers in Massachusetts who serve breakfast and host events in March,” said John F. Soares, commissioner for the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture Resources. “Maple syrup production is not our largest industry but it is a very important one in part for its diversity.”

Maple syrup production is highly dependent on a specific climate. The southern New England maple season usually runs from mid-February until late March, when temperatures are in the 40s during the day but below freezing at night.

But this year the weather has been unpredictable, raising questions about maple syrup production.

Maple syrup is made by concentrating the sap of the sugar maple trees, called “sugarbush”. When the temperature falls to near or below freezing, sap is sucked up into the tree through its roots. Maple trees can be tapped by boring holes into their trunks and collecting the sap, which is then processed by boiling to evaporate much of the water, leaving the concentrated syrup.

Because of the warm weather, the sugar maple trees all over the region might not produce as much sap as they usually do.

Douglas Cook, educational director at Land’s Sake Farm in Weston, says the trend has been going on over the past few years’ seasons.

“We have seen sap flows as early as December so we tapped a few weeks ago in late January,” said Cook. “We have 400 buckets and we have collected over 700 gallons so far.”

Cook noted that some trees had sap with less sugar content, in part because it a “heavy mast” year, when trees make less sugar and more seeds.

“The number of days where we have good sap flows are fewer,” said Cook. “It generally takes 40 gallons of sap to produce one gallon, but this year we could expect to take 50 to 60 gallons.”

According to Cook, northern producers in New Hampshire or Vermont have not suffered as much from meteorological changing conditions.

But Cook says even though Massachusetts producers supply might be limited, if the demand is high, it could sell at a higher price.

This year ceremonial tapping of a sugar maple tree, kicking off the Bay State’s maple sugaring season, is set to take place in Williamsburg’s Paul Sugar House on March 2.

Massachusetts’ maple producers annually produce about 50,000 gallons of maple syrup worth almost $3 million. Last year was a record year, which produced over 62,000 gallons of maple syrup recovering from the 29,000 gallons produced in 2010, the smallest annual harvest in a decade.

Click here for a map of the state’s agricultural farms.

Click here to find sugarhouse restaurants.

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