MACHIAS, Maine — As sweet smelling steam swirled through his sugarhouse Sunday and his nephew stoked the wood fire under the evaporator, maple syrup producer Walter Getchell predicted a banner year.
Getchell has tapped trees at Auger Hill Farms in Marshfield, tucked high on Pumpkin Ridge, since 1998, and this season could break all records. It’s the extended cold, he said.
“It’s been crazy getting around in the woods [due to the snow], but it’s going to be a record-breaker,” Getchell said.
Getchell opened the doors to his sugar shack Sunday, celebrating Maine Maple Sunday with dozens of visitors.
As he stood in the sugarhouse, the clouds of steam separated momentarily to give visitors a peek at the evaporator — a shining contraption that boils about 45 gallons of sap into sweet, golden maple syrup.
Cool temperatures kept visitors bundled up, but the trees know it’s spring: Above freezing daytime temperatures cause the sap to begin stirring and then flowing in the trees. The season is a short one — just six weeks.
Getchell said he began tapping his 500 trees on March 2, but the sap didn’t really flow until March 12. “These cold temperatures are a mixed blessing for us. As long as there is snow, the buds don’t come out.” Once a tree buds, the sap will no longer flow.
As of Sunday, Getchell had boiled 43 gallons of syrup. His record was 46 gallons in 2003. “But I won’t be a bit surprised if we go past 50 this year,” he said.
Getchell sells bottled syrup and maple-coated nuts from his farm and at Whole Life Natural Foods in Machias.
Boiling at 219 degrees, the sap becomes syrup. It is filtered, graded and bottled. For those wishing to buy local, they can’t get much more local than a tree in the backyard.
All natural, 100 percent pure, Maine maple syrup is prized on pancakes, ice cream and in cooking. Maine is the second largest syrup producer in the U.S., behind Vermont, and Somerset County is the most productive county in the country.
According to Eric Ellis, president of the Maine Maple Producers Association, tapping does no permanent damage to trees and only 10 percent of the sap is collected each year. Many maple trees have been tapped for 150 or more years. Each tap will yield an average of 10 gallons of sap per season, producing about one quart of syrup.
Ellis said the maple season may last eight to 10 weeks, but sap flow is heaviest for about 10 to 20 days in the early spring.
Heidi and Corey Schwinn of Marshfield brought their three young children to Getchell’s sugarhouse Sunday. “We come almost every year,” Heidi Schwinn said. “We do our own maple syrup on a wood stove in our home.”
Corey Schwinn said he taps about 30 trees a year. “It’s just enough to supply our family for nine months of the year,” he said.
Before the visitors arrived Sunday, Getchell said many friends and relatives had already been celebrating the arrival of spring by gathering each night in the sugar shack as the sap boils.
“We’ll have seven to 15 guys here, all watching the steam rise and discussing the problems of the world,” he said. “It becomes a great time to socialize.” Many of the men who come to work in the blueberry industry or construction, he said, are between seasons when syruping begins.
Gathering at the sugar shack has become a local tradition, he said. Visitors on Sunday enjoyed ice cream drenched in syrup and topped with nuts, visited a tree-tapping display Getchell created, and could watch a slide show of syrup production.
At Getchell’s farm, about 61/2 miles of tubing is used to gather the sap, using gravity, from mostly red maple trees. “Washington County doesn’t really have any sugar maples,” he said. “We only tap two, in a neighbor’s yard.” This creates a bit more work, he said.
With sugar maple sap, about 40 gallons of sap equal a gallon of syrup. With red maples, that ratio is about 43 to 48 to one.
While greeting every visitor at the door, Getchell said he loves Maine Maple Sunday. “It’s hectic, but a lot of fun.”