Early warm weather poses challenges for sap production
By Holly Riddle
For many, this winter’s unpredictable, fluctuating temperatures have warranted mere passing conversation, but for Adirondack maple producers, the season has already set records for early start dates, creating challenges for small-scale producers.
“Our initial startup this year was the earliest we ever boiled,” said Dave McComb, who operates a 2,000-tap maple syrup production farm in Speculator, McComb’s Oak Hill Farm. “If you go back in our records, maybe 15 years ago, we boiled on Feb. 22. That was the earliest ever until this year, so it does ebb and flow but … historically, people tap their trees in this area on St. Patrick’s Day. If you waited until March 17 this year, though, [the season] might be over.”
Jack Drury at Mark Twain Mapleworks, situated at the Mark Twain Camp in Saranac Lake, echoed the same. “Here I am,” he said on Feb. 20, “about two weeks earlier than I’ve ever tapped before, and we’ve got about 120 gallons of sap. That’s only enough to make about three gallons of syrup, but that’s still three gallons of syrup that I’ve never gotten this early before.”
McComb points to vacuum systems that work around the precise temperatures historically needed for sap collection. However, those vacuum systems and similar technologies aren’t always an option, especially for smaller producers, rendering them more dependent on the weather, planning their schedules around forecasts in hopes of being in the right place at the right time.
“Climate change is particularly having an impact on smaller producers,” Drury noted, counting himself among those smaller producers, with his operation’s 400 taps. “The big producers have high-tech vacuum systems that allow you to capitalize on the inconsistencies and weather a little bit better.”
At Whitney’s Maple Spring Farm in Keene, Ned Whitney, a third-generation maple producer with 4,000 taps, uses a vacuum system that he said “helps tremendously with sap yield, but it can only do so much.” Looking at his father and grandfather’s experiences in the business, as well as his memories of working alongside them as a child, he noted the business — and the weather — have changed considerably.
“It’s less predictable than it used to be. I can remember, as a kid, we had perfect sugaring days. It would be in the high 20s at night and then sunshine and high 40s during the day and the sap would just run — and it did that for six weeks. Now, it’s all over the place,” he said.
“My father and I were talking about when he was younger and they always said that the sugar season doesn’t officially start until the rivers have gone out for the third time — but they haven’t really even frozen up that much this year … All that old folklore that we used to go by, for years, is now out the window. You have to play the weather and hope for the best outcome.”— Ned Whitney
In order to ensure a greater yield and recover the farm’s investments in equipment and supplies, Whitney mentioned the need to tap earlier in the season, so as to catch the warmer days that continue to pop up earlier and earlier in the year. However, it’s not as simple as bumping the sugaring season up a few weeks and then expecting it to continue for the subsequent six weeks.
“You have to be ready to catch those warmups, knowing it’s going to get cold again,” Whitney said. “There may be a few smaller sugar seasons instead of one big one.”
Regardless of operation size or available tech, though, producers around the Adirondacks seem to rely on one key resource: community. Whitney mentioned being able to skirt labor shortages thanks to a crew that’s “excited” about maple season and ready to jump when the weather cooperates. Drury likewise mentioned enlisting the help of friends to run his operation as needed, from tapping to assisting during the state’s annual maple weekends.
Organized by the NYS Maple Producers Association, Maple Weekend is a time for the community to visit farms and producers to see the maple sugar-making process firsthand. This year’s Maple Weekend takes place March 18–19 and March 25–26, with tours, samples and other activities available at participating sites.
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