Big winter snow promises sweet nectar of spring

ADDISON COUNTY — What’s the big difference between this year’s maple sugar season and last year’s?
The snow.
A burden to some and a blessing to others, local sugarmakers say this winter’s massive snowfall is setting the tone for the year’s sugar season.
“It’s just been a struggle,” said Bill Heffernan of Heffernan Family Sugarworks in Starksboro about tapping 9,500 trees beginning on Feb. 16. “It’s tough in three to four feet of snow.”
But now — after the third-largest snowfall on record — many sugarmakers are looking past the initial challenge of the white stuff.
“I look at the snow as a friend that will help me prolong my season,” said master sugarmaker Kenn Hastings of Bread Loaf View Farm in Cornwall. “The sap is produced by the tree  … but the tree needs the water, so the trees will run better as the snow melts.”
According to Hastings and others, the snow not only brings water to the tree, it also insulates it against the cold.
“The packed snow keeps the roots in a slower warm up cycle,” which preserves the quality of the sap, explained Lincoln resident Barb Rainville, a member of the Vermont Maple Foundation board of directors.
“A fast warm up quickly changes the syrup to that ‘buddy’ flavor,” Rainville said. “The ‘buddy flavor’ is just like chewing on a tree bud, there’s no sweetness or anything in the syrup.”
Bacteria grow and other complex reactions occur when the tree warms up quickly, causing the sap to produce this “buddy flavor.”
“That’s when you stop — when you get that buddy flavor, you’re done. There’s no market for it … it’s really nasty stuff,” said Rainville.
Sugarmakers prefer a consistent cold-warm cycle.
“It has to freeze; 25 (degrees) at night and 45 during the day is perfect,” Rainville said. “You need that atmospheric pressure inside the tree.”
So, while many Addison County residents lament the cold-warm cycle of Vermont spring, notorious for producing the common cold, sugarmakers rejoice.
Most sugarmakers will tell you that this year’s sugaring season is late by two weeks. But, as Hastings said, “That is only compared with last year’s season.”
The Starksboro sugar sage Dave Folino, whose Hillsboro Sugarworks boasts more than 14,000 taps, is in his 33rd year of sugaring.
“Starting after the first week of March is more of a traditional sugaring season,” he said. “Last year was an exception — it started about two weeks early and ended about two weeks early.”
One advantage of this year’s timing is that it gave sugarmakers more time to prepare.
“It’s good to have more time,” Hastings said.
This year’s sodden weather might also be the reason behind a unique maple phenomenon.
“There’s a ton of moisture, which could explain why the sap is little bit diluted,” said Folino. “It’s not horrible just a little bit below average.”
After sugarhouses across Addison County opened their doors to eager maple enthusiasts last weekend, Folino said, “Overall I think everyone’s doing pretty well and on schedule with production.”
At the Bread Loaf View Farm open house, sugarhouse owners Churchill and Janet Franklin, with property manager Deane Rubright, served up free pancakes, sausages and maple products made from all local ingredients to hundreds of maple-crazy community members.
All the while, Hastings explained the maple syrup process next to the farm’s ultra modern evaporator. Locals ranging from infants to well into their senior years paid close attention, some asking questions about the density of the syrup as it bubbled along.
“We’re in the peak of things now!” exclaimed Hastings with a big smile stretched ear to ear.
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected].

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