Warm February after a cold winter hint at a good season for maple syrup

Posted Feb. 19, 2011, at 12 a.m.

SKOWHEGAN, Maine — For those who watch the seasons, one of the earliest signs of spring in Maine is a sap bucket hanging on a sugar maple.

“It’s been verified,” Mark Cooper of Cooper’s Maple Products in Windham said Friday. “Spring is coming.” Cooper, who taps 1,250 to 1,300 trees, plans to begin gathering sap Sunday. “But the last couple of warm days have been really tempting.”

So tempting that some of the state’s hundreds of maple syrup producers were tapping trees Thursday.

Other producers, particularly those in northern Maine, are cautiously watching an approaching cold stretch and will wait until after it passes to collect the sap.

“Spring is right on our doorstep,” Eric Ellis of Maine Maple Products at Madison said Friday. Ellis said some producers checked their trees and found the sap was running Thursday. “But it may be quite short-lived with the cold returning.”

Maine Maple Products has not begun tapping any of its 75,000 trees in northern Somerset County, but could begin a week from now, Ellis said. MMP is owned by the Lariviere family of Quebec, and its Maine sugarbush is so remote that it can only be reached through a rural crossing from Canada.

Ellis said it was too early to predict how this year’s season will go, but added, “We are always optimistic until proven wrong. That is the nature of agriculture, I guess.”

Last year, maple producers suffered through a mixed season — early in the southern part of the state and later up north. This year, the pattern appears to be the same. Typically, producers like the Larivieres begin tapping around March 20 — not Feb. 20. But last year, they were weeks ahead of the season, and Ellis said the weather appears to be setting up for a similar scenario this season.

Maine maple syrup production was around 310,000 gallons last year, below the state’s record-high production in 2009 of 395,000 gallons.

Maine ranked second in production in the country in 2009, making about 27 percent of all U.S. syrup, according to the New England Agriculture Statistics Service.

Kathy Hopkins, maple syrup specialist with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, said more small farmers are getting into syrup production, and existing businesses are expanding. “The outlook is great for the resource,” she said. Cooper said he added another 100 trees this year and will add more in 2012.

Hopkins explained that the traditional six-week season is completely ruled by temperatures.

“We need temperatures of 20 or so in the night, followed by 40 to 45 in the day, without a strong wind, for a good sap flow,” she said. Once daytime temperatures are consistently in the 60s, Hopkins said, the buds begin to form and the sap tastes “buddy.” She said it is like chewing on a green branch.

The amount of snow still remaining under the trees may actually help production, Ellis said. Because Maine’s snows began before the winter frost could get deep into the ground, Ellis said, the snow may help keep the trees’ roots cool. “This kind of tricks the tree into thinking it is still winter and slows bud production,” he said.

“But we’ve had fairly stable temperatures and a good supply of groundwater,” Ellis added. “It should be a good season.”

Maine Maple Sunday, a day when sugarhouses across the state open their doors and offer tours, educational programming and tasting, is March 27.

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Maple syrup resources

Information about producing maple syrup is available from Kathy Hopkins of University of Maine Cooperative Extension at 474-9622 or khopkins@maine.edu.

A list of maple sugar products producers participating in Maine Maple Sunday is at www.mainemapleproducers.com or www.getrealmaine.com.

Three Cooperative Extension instructional maple-sugaring videos are available on YouTube:

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