The sky was blue and the snow underfoot — what little remained of it — was soft on Wednesday morning as Chris and Shelley Simmons and two of their daughters collected sap from metal buckets hanging on the maple trees in the sugarbush behind their Morrill farm.
With current weather conditions in much of the state featuring mild days and frosty nights, maple season is well underway across Maine. Some farms and maple operations have been performing the alchemy that turns pale, watery sap into sweet, rich amber syrup for weeks now, and the weather forecast continues to look promising for harvesters. That’s good news for folks like the Simmonses, who run Simmons & Daughters Sugar House, and Pat Richards of Belfast, who had swung by to visit the family-run operation. Richards said he makes about 60 gallons of syrup a year and began tapping his trees about three weeks ago.
“It’s the earliest I’ve ever tapped,” Richards said. “It’s a good start, and it should be a good year.”
That’s what a lot of Maine maple producers are hoping, too, according to Kathy Hopkins, a maple syrup expert with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. Traditionally, Maine maple season starts with a cold January and February, and producers tap their trees in mid-to-late February or early March, depending on where the sugar bush is located. Sap flows best when trees freeze at night and then thaw during the day, Hopkins said, adding that these days syrup producers do best when they take their cues from the current conditions instead of the traditional calendar.
“Every maple season is kind of weird, in a way, because you’re waiting on the weather,” she said. “You can’t plan precisely when you make your syrup. You have to make your maple syrup when Mother Nature says you can, so maple producers are used to being flexible. And I think this winter is going to require excessive flexibility.”
One reason for that is because spring is running ahead of schedule. It arrived about 20 days early in the Washington, D.C. area, according to the USA National Phenology Network, and after a bitterly cold start to the winter, much of February in Maine has felt downright temperate.
“I think the season in general seems to be opening earlier,” Hopkins said. “Traditionally, people might tap in February and expect to make syrup in March. People need to be ready to go in February now.”
Hollis Edwards of Eureka Farms in Palmyra said on Monday that his sap is running well and expected to do the first boil of the season soon. It definitely feels like spring in the woods, he said.
“The snow is getting mealy and it’s settling. The sun is bright, where it’s shining through the maples. And occasionally you see a maple tree where the buds are starting to swell a little bit,” he said. “Today is a spring day. Forty seven degrees, the sky’s blue, nice sun, no wind — and the sap is starting to flow.”
Over in Morrill, before heading out on the day’s first sap collection run, Chris Simmons stoked the fire that burned under the stainless steel evaporator and fragrant clouds of maple steam filled the air of the wooden sugar shack. The family has about 650 taps in their trees so far and another hundred to put in. They collect sap with a combination of old-fashioned buckets and modern plastic tubing, and Simmons said he’s aiming to make about 200 gallons of syrup this year. So far, the sap has a slightly lower sugar content than it did last year, meaning more of it is needed to make syrup.
“Yesterday was our first boil,” Katie Simmons, 14, said, adding that the finished product was delicious.
Her mom agreed.
“Last night, the first taste was so delicious,” Shelley Simmons said.
But not everyone loves the taste of real maple syrup.
“We find that a lot of people, if they did not grow up eating real maple syrup, they don’t love it,” Shelley Simmons said. “I guess it’s an acquired taste.”
Fortunately, plenty of Mainers have the taste for maple syrup. Maine Maple Sunday — always held the fourth Sunday in March — is a big deal for producers like the Simmons family and Hollis Edwards. They said they love welcoming people to their sugar shacks and showing them how syrup is made. For them, turning sap into syrup is a passion they like to share.
“My dad taught me how to do it when I was 10 years old,” Edwards, 68, said. “I tell people it was like a disease. It got in my blood and never left. I love it. I’ve done it all my life. There’s so many kids that just don’t know [about it]. It’s honest. They’ve never had the chance to know, and we make sure they do.”
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