Sugaring season comes to a sweet conclusion

ADDISON COUNTY — With a bout of summer-like weather early this week following a long, cold spring, Addison County’s sugarmakers are shutting down their evaporators and plucking taps from their budding maple trees.
“Overall, it was a very good year,” said Donna Hutchinson, co-owner of Mount Pleasant Sugarworks in Leicester. “It started early — for those who were prepared, they had a great time. For those of us who tapped normally, we missed a few runs.”
Local sugarmakers generally were pleased with their season, which started for some as early as late January, took a break during the March snowstorm — this winter’s largest — and limped along in starts and stops into the second weekend in April. Overall numbers for the total amount of syrup produced this season won’t be tabulated until June.
For the past several years, maple producers have reported an early start to the season, set off by the onset of warmer-than-average temperatures in January and February. This year was no exception. Sugarmakers at Mount Pleasant Sugarworks began tapping as usual the first week of February, but the sap began to run before all the taps were set.
“The first run, I believe, was either the first week of February or the last week in January,” Hutchinson said.
Kevin Williams, owner of Williams Maple Farm in Cornwall, began sugaring when he was 12 years old. More than four decades later, he’s seen a steady and explicit shift in the timing of the sugaring season.
“This year, many people started tapping January. I could have, but I was busy putting up new lines,” he said. In the past, Williams always tapped during the third week of February. This year, he tapped on Feb. 11 and felt late to the game.
Tom Audet, co-owner of Ledge Haven Farm in Orwell, has grown accustomed to tapping early.
“We started tapping the second week of February,” he said. “That’s getting to be the norm. It’s getting earlier and earlier. If we had missed the early runs, we probably would have missed a pretty good portion of the crop.”
Williams this year produced more syrup than ever before, coming in at 5,095 gallons from 9,250 taps, which amounts to a little more than half a gallon of syrup per tap.
“We’ve been adding taps every year, but this year was the same amount of taps as last year, and we made about 700 more gallons than last year,” he said. “It’s the second-highest year of production that we’ve had.”
Hutchinson said Mount Pleasant Sugarworks met its goal this year, yielding half a gallon per each of the sugarbush’s 3,700 taps.
But production reports weren’t all sweetness.
Audet reported a yield marginally less fruitful than years’ past. While Ledge Haven Farm produces 1,200 gallons on average, this year it produced 1,190.
As for the quality of the sap, all three sugarmakers were surprised to find that the syrup ran almost entirely dark.
“There’s three grades,” Williams said, “golden, amber and dark. Normally, we make a lot of golden. Because it was so warm in February when we first got started, it took the grade down to amber right away. I’d say at least 80 percent of what we made was in the amber range. We made a few drums of golden, and a fair amount of dark on the end now.”
In Leicester, it was a similar story.
“A lot of us made darker syrup this year,” Hutchinson said. “There was less of the golden delicate — we didn’t make any golden delicate, possibly because the runs were smaller. Many times, a big run will clean out your evaporator, and that fresh sap makes a lighter syrup — that would be my only explanation of why it would be a little darker this year. It just came in spurts instead of big runs.”
Audet also saw darker-than-normal syrup this year, but while Hutchinson hailed the robust flavor of this year’s crop, Audet was concerned.
“(After) the freeze-up in early March, our grade dropped to robust, and we never could get it higher,” he said. “Part of our market is a lighter grade syrup — we made enough for that. It’s just that we like to make more of the lighter grade than the darker.”
Despite this spring’s drastically fluctuating temperatures, topped with occasional high winds and late winter storms, most sugarmakers fared well. After years of collective experience, many have learned to expect the unexpected.
“I’ve always said, no two season are alike,” Williams said. “I had to eat my words, because two years ago, we had two years in a row that were almost identical. But generally speaking, there’s always some kind of weird thing that happens.” 

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