Cold weather slows start of sugaring season

ADDISON COUNTY — After working up to 40 hours a week since the start of winter getting his taps in the maple trees, tubing cleaned and hung and sap boiling and syrup bottling system ready to go, Don Gale of Lincoln described the sugaring season so far in three words:

“Nothing, nada, zero.”

One of the directors of the Addison County Maple Sugarmakers Association, Gale said the conditions at Twin Maple Sugarworks, where he maintains some 3,200 taps, were better for skiing than sugarmaking. Early this week he still needed snowshoes to maneuver through three feet of snow, and temperatures as low as 15 to 20 below zero caused tubing to shrink and separate from the taps.

“It’s a slow season, but it’s not unheard of,” Gale said. “It’s no different than farming.”

Victor Atkins of the Atkins Farm in Lincoln laughed when asked how the sugaring season is going.

“We haven’t had it yet,” he said. “But if you find some warm weather though, send it our way.”

Vermont’s signature rite of spring, sugaring, requires warm days and nights with temperatures around freezing to encourage the flow of maple sap to the buckets and lines. But with two feet of snowfall in the region last week and temperatures staying consistently below average, this year’s sugaring season is moving about as fast as the sap. For sugarmakers in Addison County, that means waiting.

While he works for a construction company for most of the year, Kenn Hastings spends his winters and early springs at the Bread Loaf View Farm in Cornwall, where he has been sugaring for 29 years, managing 1,500 taps in a season.

“In March, there’s nothing much to do, unless you’re going on vacation in Florida,” he said. “But I can’t go on vacation because I’ve got to stay home and sugar.”

Hastings keeps detailed records of past seasons, including weather patterns and the locations of taps spanning as far back as 1988. While he says yearly totals on sap collected and syrup produced make for good conversation, they don’t help him with the current season.

“I’ve given up on the crystal ball method,” he said.

In a season, he usually logs 30-35 nonconsecutive days in the woods; the majority of those days are spent in the shack with the evaporator running. This season, he’s logged only three days so far but he says he’s not worried. 

“Some people are worried that the season will be over before it starts, but for me it was hogwash,” he said. “I can tell you that in the 29 years that I’ve been sugaring, in five of those 29 years I’ve made more syrup in April than I did in March.” 

One of the most common difficulties with sugaring is the tremendous amount of raw sap required to produce even a small amount of syrup — as much as 40 gallons evaporated to make one gallon, but Hastings says it’s around the corner.

“We’ll get our full season,” he added. “It might be short but it’s not like Mother Nature says: ‘Oh, I’m sorry, spring has sprung and summer is next week.’ It just doesn’t work that way.”

Betsy Dunham, of Dunham Family Maple in Starksboro, insists you have to be an optimist if you want to start sugaring. Now that the taps are in place and the lines cleaned and repaired, Dunham said the only thing they can do now is wait and work with whatever results they get.

“Once the sap starts running, it is what it is,” she said. “It can be anywhere from a five-hour-day of just watching vacuum pumps, sap level and boiling or it could be a 24-hour-day because you’ve got big runs with all hands on deck.” 

From long days fixing taps to long nights boiling in the shed, sugaring is a painstaking process with an unpredictable outcome. Evaporators heated with wood require weeks of gathering, chopping, splitting and stacking firewood in the previous year. For sugarmakers, installing taps and setting up a network of tubing connecting to storage tanks takes at least four or five days of work with family and friends volunteering to help in the winter. The actual work of boiling down the sap usually covers a four to six week period that usually runs into mid April. Then they clean everything and store it for the next year.

So far, Dunham said her sugarworks has had a few “oozy runs,” none of which have amounted to enough to warrant a boil, but the she expects to have the first boil in a few days. That will put it in time for the statewide Maple Open House Weekend this Saturday and Sunday, when maple sugar producers all over Vermont open up their shops for demonstrations and samples (See story on Page 6A).

Sugaring is an imprecise science. Some years are banner years while others fizzle.

Dunham and her husband, Jeff, have been producing syrup for over 30 years and this year hope to recoup the costs of a new evaporator installed this season, replacing the one they had been using since they started.

“We’re all systems go,” she said. “We’re just waiting on the weather.”

Mike Christian, another director of the Addison County Maple Sugarmakers Association, learned sugaring when he was 11 and grew up a mile from where he currently lives in Orwell and produces syrup in the spring. He says in the past, people have been tapping trees as early as Town Meeting Day (sometimes earlier), other seasons didn’t start until March 25.

“I once had an old timer tell me that you won’t get any sap until after the full moon,” he said. “And we passed that this Saturday. How it’ll shake out, I don’t know.”

Christian said he expects this could be a short but intense season.

He runs 1,000 taps and buys in another 2,700 from nearby sugarmakers. He still hasn’t collected any sap this year but hopes to have his evaporator up and running for the weekend open house.

Even so, he said, there still isn’t any downtime.

“There’s always work to be done in the woods,” he said. “There are repairs in the lines to make and taps to check. Once the weather warms up, you’re in the woods all day and in the shack all night.”  

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