MACHIAS, Maine — This winter’s unusual lack of snow and mild temperatures both day and night is having an extreme effect on Maine’s maple syrup industry.
Traditionally, central Mainers begin tapping maple trees between March 7 and 10. The average start date across the state is March 20.
But this year trees are already tapped in some places and syrup makers are boiling sap, while in other areas, daytime temperatures are still too low for the sap to run.
Lee and Mary Anne Kinney of Kinney Maple Supplies in Knox began boiling sap last Saturday.
“It’s just pouring in,” Lee Kinney said this week. “Here we are almost three weeks early. This is the earliest I’ve seen it in the six years we’ve been in the business.”
By Wednesday, Kinney had boiled off 242 gallons of syrup. “This warm weather really caught us off guard,” he said.
As usual with Maine’s agriculture, individual seasons depend on geography.
“It all depends on where you live in the state,” Eric Ellis of Maine Maple Products Inc. of Madison said Wednesday. “It is not too unusual to make syrup in February, especially in southern Maine.”
Ellis is the spokesman for Maine Maple Products, a company run by the Lariviere brothers that taps 50,000 trees in northern Somerset County, the highest syrup producing county in the U.S.
Harvesting syrup is dependent on warm days that are above freezing followed by cold nights that dip below freezing, and Mother Nature has had Maine winters on a roller coaster recently.
In 2008, the season was so late that tapping was just getting under way in April and syrup makers reported 2 feet or more of snow in the woods. The Maine yield was 225,000 gallons — 75,000 gallons less than the year before. It was the lowest production rate in six years, the USDA reported, and some Maine producers said their yield was even less.
But one year later, in 2009, Maine’s syrup production was at an all-time high, up 65 percent from the year before. Maine produced 395,000 gallons of maple syrup in 2009, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. After the poor year in 2008, the 2009 harvest moved Maine back into the No. 2 spot in the nation for maple syrup production. Nationally, an average of 22 percent increase in production was seen.
This boom in the harvest was good news to consumers who paid up to $65 a gallon for syrup in 2008 as supplies were quickly depleted.
The forecast for this year’s harvest still is unpredictable.
“We are certainly seeing some strange weather patterns,” Ellis said. “Even with the warm [daytime] temperatures, it’s not getting cold enough at night.”
Ellis said the industry needs moderate temperatures for six weeks to ensure a consistent, long season.
“If these warm temperatures hold, many producers could get off to an early start,” he said.
Maine Maple Sunday is set for March 28, when sugarhouses across the state will open their doors to the public to share their bounty.
“Many across the state are getting started [tapping] this week for sure,” Ellis said. “There is a good chance that by Maine Maple Sunday some could be done.”
Jeremy Steeves of Strawberry Hill Farms in Skowhegan said his season could be a week early.
“But sometimes it’s a week late,” he added. “I have no worries because an early season means a longer season.”
In optimum conditions, sap will flow for 10 to 20 days each year. Once a tree is tapped, sap will continue to be collected until the trees start to bud and the flow naturally diminishes.
Walter Getchell at Auger Hill Farm in Machias said that last week “was disastrous.” The days were quite warm but temperatures didn’t drop low enough at night.
“We really don’t have much to talk about yet,” he said. “We’re crossing our fingers for colder night temperatures next week.”
Charlie Baker at Baker’s Maple Syrup in Shirley said the sap in his trees is running, but there is still a foot of snow in the woods.
“I’m exhausted. I’ve been tapping trees all day and usually start the second or third week in March,” he said. “It has been a strange, strange winter.”