In this Wednesday, April 1, 2020 photo, Scott Dunn fills a sample bottle of maple syrup at the Dunn Family Maple sugar house in Buxton, Maine. Maple syrup producers are dealing with several setbacks after the coronavirus outbreak including the recent cancelation of Maple Syrup Sunday. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

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Dover-Foxcroft should have been abuzz with a spring fever of sorts.

One end of town normally would have been filled with parked cars on both sides of the road on March 22 — this fourth Sunday of the third month of the year — with people lined up outside a small shop eager for an opportunity to sample one of Maine’s sweetest agricultural staples.

At the other end of town, hundreds of like-minded folks would have been experiencing a similar taste test during a breakfast at Foxcroft Academy that features the locally produced specialty.

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Then came COVID-19, and one of its first casualties was Maine Maple Sunday.

“At Christmastime retailers talk about Black Friday — well that’s our Black Friday. It really is,” said 81-year-old Bob Moore, who has produced maple syrup since age 10 and is the longtime owner of Bob’s Sugarhouse, the centerpiece of Dover-Foxcroft’s celebration.

“We took a big hit. All maple producers took a big hit this year.”

While the full extent of the economic impact that Moore — who had expanded his business’ Maine Maple Sunday activities into a weekend-long event in recent years — and approximately 100 other licensed sugarhouses around Maine will face from the cancellation of the open houses isn’t yet known, it’s likely to take a big bite out of maple syrup consumption this year.

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“Most producers in Maine say it’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 percent of their business and some say higher than that,” said Scott Dunn, president of the Maine Maple Producers Association and owner of Dunn Family Maple in Buxton. “But generally the average is that probably 50 percent of the annual sales come on Maple Sunday.”

Moore estimates that he and his crew spent at least a month in preparation for this year’s event, highlighted by the boiling of sap into a syrup perhaps best known for its value in topping a fresh stack of pancakes but whose appeal as a sweetening agent has myriad applications.

“I have a daughter who does a lot of baking for us for that weekend, and right now she has a freezer full of food,” Moore said. “We spend several hundred dollars just for ingredients to cook with, and I guess now we’ll have desserts to eat for the rest of our lives.”

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Maine’s maple industry now seeks to regroup from the cancellation of Maine Maple Sunday and the marketing momentum it provides in its aftermath.

“Sales have been slow, obviously, with the pandemic going on,” Dunn said. “Maple Sunday hurt, but producers have been finding ways to innovate in order to increase sales through farm stands and websites.

“We’ve gone to more farm stand-based sales, advertising a little more, offering different types of sales like a buy-two, get-one free type of thing, and just doing different things to market and show that there’s still syrup available.”

Moore’s shop is open by appointment until 5 p.m. each day, with curbside delivery or one-person-at-a-time inside shopping available.

Moore said his business also has a new website and has advertised on social media, including a Facebook post offering gift baskets just in time for Mother’s Day this Sunday.

“Of course, you’re never going to make it all up but our internet orders from the website are up,” he said. “I think people are buying more and having it shipped.”

Dunn described 2020 as an average year for statewide maple syrup production.

“Most producers reported making about the same amount of syrup as they generally do,” he said. “Sugar contents were low but the amount of sap they collected was a little higher so we just had to boil a little more sap to make a gallon of syrup.”

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Maine was the nation’s third-largest maple syrup producer in 2019 with its 580,000 gallons trailing only Vermont at 2.07 million gallons and New York at 820,000 gallons.

Dunn said maple producers may stage an event to showcase their product later this year to help make up for the Maine Maple Sunday cancellation and build momentum for next year’s event, scheduled for March 28, 2021.

“There are some plans in the works to do a fall event of some sort, but we’re waiting to see what’s going to happen with the virus to see if it pulls back enough to have events,” he said. “Not quite like Maple Sunday, but somewhere along those lines like a maple festival.”

Moore, with more than seven decades of experience in the ebb and flow of producing maple syrup each spring, is philosophical about this year’s circumstances.

“It’s just like farming,” he said. “You’re at the mercy of the weather. If you get the right weather and Mother Nature cooperates with you you’ll get a good year, and there are years when it’s very lean.

“You just have to go with the flow.”

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Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...