Sugaring season off to a late start; producers hopeful

ADDISON COUNTY — Recent blasts of winter weather were tiresome news for some, but for maple sugarmakers around Addison County, nightly drops in temperatures have been like manna from heaven.

“This freezing at nighttime has helped us, I’ll be honest,” said Salisbury sap collector Reginald Betourney.

Maple trees need warm days and subfreezing nights to produce the best sap runs. With cold temperatures lingering stubbornly through much of March and forecasts for this week seeing temps pushing 60 degrees Fahrenheit, sugarmakers have had a narrow window for collecting and boiling.

While this sugaring season hasn’t been optimal, it hasn’t been as late as last year. And with the sap running, Betourney said he is busy tapping all sorts of maples.

“Anything that runs sap,” he said. “Don’t stand still or I’ll tap you too.”

So far this season, the 79-year-old has collected more than 3,000 gallons from his 500 taps, not as much as last year’s late start, but he’s not complaining.

“It always could be better, but it could be worse, too,” he said, describing this season’s results. “If it lasts another two weeks it would be excellent but I doubt with the weather coming it’ll last that long.”

Jeff and Betsy Dunham have been operating their sugarbush in Starksboro for the past 40 years. Data Betsy Dunham has collected for the past 10 seasons show that this spring was the second-latest start; only last year’s sugaring season started later. Their trees are at an elevation between 1,500 and 2,200 feet so temperatures are lower than in the valley. The couple had their first boil on March 28 and have so far produced 400 gallons, about half of their average yearly yield. If the temperatures drop at night, the couple hopes to meet their goal of between 800 and 900 gallons before the trees bud.

“We might make it,” said Dunham. “We’re hopeful and you’ve got to be an optimist.”

Gabe Meader, also of Starksboro, said an extra one-and-a-half feet of snow delayed his sugaring until March 28 and then the sap stopped running until the second week in April. Before April 8, he had only been able to produce a gallon. His 128 taps usually yield enough sap for 25 gallons of syrup.

“If I were to be done right now, I’d be about half of that,” he said. 

In Monkton, Bill and Carla Whitney operate a small system and produce 50 to 100 gallons per year. They consider their sugaring more of a hobby, using their syrup as gifts for friends and family. Given the late start, they only deployed 100 of their usual 250 taps this year.

“It’s a late season but it hasn’t been a very good one, that’s for sure,” Carla Whitney said. “Others are dong better than we are.”

MOUNT ABRAHAM UNION High School junior Colin Jennings draws some syrup from the Hannaford Career Center’s evaporator in Weybridge last week. Syrup production has taken a hit this season with sugarmakers in the valley doing better than those at higher elevations.

Independent photo/Trent Campbell

MORE TAPS IN TREES

Bill Heffernan in South Starksboro boiled twice in March, starting on March 19. Through early April, his sugarhouse produced 3,500 gallons of syrup, keeping him on track to making 14,000 gallons by the end of the season — 2,700 more gallons than they totaled last year.

“We’re very optimistic,” said Heffernan. “We’re at 25 percent of where we want to be.”

This year, Heffernan increased the number of taps he set by 5,000, bringing the total to 28,000. Heffernan said it takes about a year to recoup the initial cost of such an investment, and he anticipates the price-per-pound of syrup to be slightly lower, due to a weak Canadian dollar and a glut of syrup on the market from expanding sugaring operations around the state.

Bear Coble Sugarworks in the Jerusalem section of Starksboro is running 30,000 taps and has been boiling almost every night since mid-March. So far, manager Brendan Moore said the sugarworks has produced about a third of a full crop, and it is aiming to produce between 12,000 and 15,000 gallons by the end of the season.

Bear Cobble added 12,000 taps over this past summer. Given the late start of the sugaring season and a possible abrupt conclusion, Moore said it’s too early to predict his return on investment.

For now, Moore says, the sugarhouse has produced some “great-tasting” syrup. But as the temperature rises, the quality of the syrup falls as sugars that normally would be in the sap are diverted by the trees to create pollen. As the tree prepares to bud, less sugar in the sap means lower-quality syrup and depending on the forecast, the season could be over in a matter of days. 

“If it goes five to eight days in a row without freezing, that pretty much means the end of the season,” he said.

But that, Moore says, is something he chooses not to think about.

“We’ve got to be optimistic,” he said. “We just keep going and figure it out when we’re done.”          

ELEVATION MATTERS

The outlook on the sugaring season is slightly different at lower elevations in the Champlain Valley.

Donna Hutchison and her husband, Andy, started making syrup as “backyarders” in 1988 and were proud of the five smoky tasting gallons they produced their first year. They’ve since expanded (as well as refined their technique) and today, in addition to producing and selling their own syrup, they also sell sugaring equipment at Mount Pleasant Sugarworks in Leicester.

Hutchison says sugarmakers’ success this year is largely determined by elevation. Near the end of last week, lower elevations experienced rain while those further above sea level in Bristol, Starksboro or Lincoln received snow, locking the sap in the trees, Donna Hutchison said.

“Most of the higher elevation sugarers are about at a quarter of a crop but here in the Champlain Valley, we’re doing quite well,” she said.

However, she maintains this year isn’t exactly a sweeping success. 

“I wouldn’t call it ‘raking it in,’” she said. “It is three-quarters of a crop, not a bumper-crop but it’ll likely sugar off into an average crop.”

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