Maple sugaring season is off to a sweet start

ADDISON COUNTY — Last year’s sugaring season was the shortest in recent memory. But this year, sugarmakers around Addison County say the season is at least getting off to a sweet start.

“I’m off to the best start I ever had,” said Mike Christian, of Village Sugarworks in Orwell. “I’ve been sugaring for the better part of 40 years, 10 years on my own, and this is the best I’ve ever seen.”

Christian said the maple sap has run twice at 34 and 35 degree temperatures — the average is 40 degrees — and that he anticipates that ongoing no-snow, high-frost conditions will help sugarmakers in his area of the county hold the season longer. He added that all his sap has been white, perfect for making Grade A and Fancy syrup.

Christian said his 1,000 taps have produced 450 gallons of syrup so far, and 200 of those gallons came from last Sunday alone. By comparison, he only produced 285 gallons during the entire 2012 season. And Christian noted he is “really just getting rolling.”

“I think we’ve got two to three weeks of good sugaring left,” he said. “It’s nice to see the Champlain Valley get good sugaring weather once in awhile.”

And the flavor so far?

“Awesome,” Christian said.

Up in Lincoln, where the snow hasn’t quite subsided, Don and Jodi Gale of Twin Maple Sugarworks started putting in their 2,800 taps last weekend, and began boiling earlier this week.

“It’s starting out good,” Jodi said. The Gales have found this year’s temperatures more “typical.” So far, the sap they are getting has low sugar content, and Jodi said it’s too early to pass judgment on the quality.

“We haven’t even made syrup yet,” she said on Tuesday. “We did boil yesterday.”

The higher elevation in Lincoln meant that the Gales did well last year, though sugarhouses lower in the valley had a season that lasted only a couple of weeks.

“We’re hoping for an extended season,” she said. “So far it looks like it could be a good one.”

Down in Middlebury, Moe Rheaume, president of the Addison County Sugarmakers Association, said on Wednesday he is “already well into the season.” Rheaume had made 300 gallons of syrup in just the last two days, and he sees no reason he won’t reach his annual goal of 1,200-1,500 gallons.

“We’re at 700 right now, and it’s not even mid-March yet,” Rheaume said.

He said that this year is a more typical year for sugaring.

“Now, you get these big ups and downs, like what we just had. It’ll get cold again and then it’ll get warm again, but that used to (happen) every night and day. Weather was really almost perfect,” Rheaume said. “But now, climate change is here. I go back — 20, 25 years ago I never made syrup before mid-March, and now you better be ready. It’s at least a month early.”

Last year, Rheaume said that the season in the valley ended with an 85-degree day in mid-March.

“I had never, in 39 years, got done sugaring in March,” he said.

Rheaume is just as aware as everyone else that sugaring is an industry intimately connected to the weather. But the industry, too, has changed in recent years.

Rheaume points to the mitigating effect of technologies like vacuums for getting more sap out during runs and reverse osmosis machines to concentrate the percentage of sugar in the sap in order to reduce the amount of time it takes to boil the sap into syrup. The sophistication of the technology is a far cry from what Rheaume remembers learning as a boy of 12 “hanging a bucket on a tree.”

“It’s so different now,” he said.

But Rheaume says that’s a positive thing for sugarmakers. The technology enables sugaring to start much earlier and go longer.

But some things don’t change. Although Rheaume expects that this year’s season will continue for a while, the final call is still out of sugarmakers’ hands.

“Nature tells you when it’s over,” Rheaume said.

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