ELLSWORTH, Maine — The tapping of the maple trees, that sweet and sticky ritual that signals the changing seasons in New England, has started early this year for many of Maine’s maple syrup producers.
Whether this year’s syrup season will be a boom or bust depends on what the weather decides to do next, however.
Kathy Hopkins, a maple syrup expert at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, said producers all over the state began tapping trees last weekend as the combination of freezing nighttime temperatures and warmer days started the sap flowing in trees.
“That really is the signal that tells trees it is spring and to start sending sap up the branches,” Hopkins said.
There is no real downside to an early season as long as the temperatures don’t suddenly warm up for an extended period and trigger buds to begin forming, which in turn affects the taste of the sap. The lack of a sizable snowpack in many areas of the state could pose challenges to some tappers, Hopkins said.
“Now they are standing on bare ground and they are having to tap way over their heads,” she said.
At Maine Sugarworks in Strong, the Mitman family began tapping trees on Feb. 13 — a solid three weeks earlier than normal and a month earlier than some years. Steve Mitman said Saturday from his sugarhouse that he had already boiled down enough sap to make five gallons of syrup.
“This is by far the earliest I have ever tapped,” Mitman said. “And I could have tapped a week earlier than I did but I didn’t believe it.”
Maine producers generated 360,000 gallons of syrup last year, up 14 percent from the previous season. Last year, deep snow hampered many sugar producers but helped extend the season as the snow kept the woods cool. The opposite could happen this year, however, notwithstanding a bout of late-winter snowstorms.
Maine was the third-largest producer of maple syrup in the U.S. in 2011, behind Vermont and New York.
At Auger Hill Farm in the Washington County town of Marshfield, Walter Getchell started tapping trees about a week earlier than normal. Sap flow has been “spotty” so far due to the fickle weather, but Getchell didn’t seem surprised given the winter so far.
In addition to cold nights and warm days, syrup producers hope for consistency, he said. “But we haven’t had that this year,” he said with a laugh.
Each March, syrup producers throughout the state open up their sugarhouses to the public for Maine Maple Sunday, which is slated for March 25 this year. That event will likely take place regardless of how long the tapping season lasts, although an early end could affect producers’ ability to show syrup production in action because sap is perishable.
Joe Calderwood said he started tapping this past week at J & R Sugarhouse in Lincolnville, which is about typical for him, although he said he could definitely have started earlier. His trees generated about 200 gallons of sap yesterday — a decent amount, he said — but he doesn’t believe the flow has reached its potential yet.
Calderwood said he is frequently asked what kind of season he expects.
“You never know what kind of year it is going to be,” he said. “I usually say, ‘I will tell you when the season is over.’”