January 17, 2019
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Unusual spring weather leaves Maine maple syrup in short supply

Michael Gudreau | Houlton Pioneer Times
Michael Gudreau | Houlton Pioneer Times
Maple season is underway, as seen in this March 2016 photo, but this year's supply is falling short thanks to the bizarre weather Maine has experienced this spring.

Holly Hardwick has done all she can to ensure a productive maple syrup season. Now it’s up to Mother Nature to determine whether this is going to be a boom or bust year.

So far, it’s not looking good.

“We’ve made 110 gallons of syrup so far this year,” Hardwick, who runs Northwoods Nectar in Eagle Lake, said. “We want to be at 700 gallons for the season.”

That season, she said, could end as early as this week if temperatures continue to rise.

“Last year we were done on April 19,” Hardwick said. “Looking ahead at the weather, we’re hoping to get a break.”

What Hardwick needs is for spring to hold off just a bit longer.

Maple trees release the prized, clear sap that she and other producers around the state turn into thick, amber syrup, when temperatures fall below freezing at night and warm up during the day.

Typically, the season — and the sap — runs February into April, depending on geography and weather.

But this year Hardwick fears her season and that of other producers in northern Maine may be over before it even really began because the sap never really ran at full speed like in a typical year.

“I look at the trees and see that the buds are getting ready to open up,” she said. “All we need is some warm weather and that’s going to happen. Things are starting to warm up. and the season is over.”

Hardwick taps 3,100 trees and, in addition to syrup, produces maple taffy, sugar, hard candies and novelty items like maple cotton candy and maple popcorn.

A late season snowstorm in early April dumped up to 15 inches of snow on northern Maine and Hardwick said that did nothing to help her season.

“The trees need the open areas of snow around their trunks to let the sap start flowing,” she said. “That new snow insulated those trunks so the trees think it’s still winter. Even though the sun now is warming the upper parts of the trees, their ‘feet’ are still freezing.”

If her season is done for the year, she said she does have enough syrup to supply her wholesalers, but there will not be enough to make any of those value added products.

It will represent a $40,000 loss over last year.

“Mother nature is really in charge of it,” she said. “Crying and tears are not going to change anything.”

Elsewhere in Maine, producers are experiencing an average to good year.

“We don’t have a lot of data yet from Aroostook County,” said Lyle Merrifield, president of the Maine Maple Producers, who taps his own trees in Gorham.

In his area of the state, Merrifield said, it’s been an on-again-off-again year with periods of the sap running broken up by dry-spells when the temperatures have not gotten warm enough during the day to get the sap moving.

Southern Maine having a bad year would not have a huge impact on the overall state’s production, Merrifield said, but if that trend holds for other areas, it’s not good news for the industry.

The Maine maple industry has been growing in economic importance to the state, with more than 700,000 gallons of maple syrup made here last year. It contributes more than $48 million to the Maine economy, according to the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.

With roughly 1.9 million trees tapped statewide, Maine is the country’s third most important maple syrup producing state, after Vermont and New York.

“If Aroostook has a bad year one year, overall the state will be OK,” he said. “But when you get over to the Jackman area and the Golden Road area to Millinocket, that’s where you have 95 percent of the state’s syrup production, and if they have a bad year we could be in for a bad year statewide.”

At Maine Maple Products, Inc., in Madison, manager Eric Ellis is summing up the season as “moderate at best at this point.”

So far Ellis said the 80,000 trees they tap have produced 10,000 gallons of syrup — half the typical season production of 20,000 gallons.

“Fortunately [Sunday] was a good day and [Monday] is looking like a good day so those numbers can change fairly quickly,” Ellis said. “Unfortunately, time is against us now. It’s been too cold quite a while for the the sap to run, and the sun is higher now. So when things do start to warm up, the end is going to come quickly.”

Ellis figures they have, at the most, another week of collecting and boiling sap, but he does see a bright spot.

“For us, the last two or three years have been better than average, so our supply on hand is in pretty good shape,” he said. “A below-average year at this point won’t change things for us dollar-wise a tremendous amount.”

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Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified northern Maine having a bad year not impacting the overall production.

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