Making maple syrup is a North Country tradition and an important cottage industry in our region. As I sit down to write this article, it's the middle of March; prime time for northern New York maple syrup production. These are the weeks of sap flow, when the sugar maples break dormancy and local syrup producers, having tapped thousands of trees, harvest their reward and boil it down with pride and care, turning out gallon after gallon of delicious pure maple syrup, as well as pure maple candy, scrumptious maple cream and delightful maple sugar. Steam is wafting from sugarhouses operating at full production and the sweet smell of boiling maple sap is in the air. At least that's the way it should be.
The truth is, the weather has been, for the most part anyway, unusually warm all winter long. Two months ago, I heard people jokingly calling January, "March-uary.' And as I sit here typing away with the windows wide open, it feels more like an afternoon in June, than in March. The summer-like temperatures sure are enjoyable! Kids are outside everywhere: playing baseball, riding bicycles, and running around in the playgrounds. Walkers and joggers can be seen trotting around town. And motorcycle enthusiasts and convertible owners have been hitting the roads in droves.
Unfortunately, the unseasonably warm weather is having a daunting effect on the region's maple industry. The overall feeling, even among the more optimistic maple producers that I've spoken with, is that production is markedly off, and going to remain that way. In fact, for those who got a late start, the season may be over almost before it began.
Most area producers tap their trees in late February and/or early March in anticipation of at least four, and more often, six weeks of sap flow, with the best runs often coming in well now. But, in order for sap to flow, conditions have to fluctuate between freezing and thawing. And that cycle of freezing and thawing temperatures just isn't happening.
Across the entire region, we've been experiencing daytime high temperatures between 60 and 75 degrees F, with nighttime temperatures remaining well above freezing. In fact, where I live, just outside of Malone, temperatures didn't fall much below 50 degrees F last night. The buds on many of the trees are already swollen, with some starting to break out. And I'm told that there are locations nearby, where scores of trees are already in flower.
One maple producer that I spoke with said that this is unlike any sugaring season he's ever experienced. Another stated that nighttime low temperatures are where he would like to see the daytime highs. Optimum sap production occurs when nighttime temperatures fall into the 20s and daytime temperatures range in the 40s, preferably with sunny skies, allowing the season to gradually transition from winter to spring.
The general feeling is that this maple season got off to a somewhat typical start, with syrup makers experiencing a couple of good runs of early-season sap with normal to higher-than-normal sugar content. But, as the warm weather set in, sap flow slowed, and now, with nighttime temperatures remaining well above freezing, trees are beginning to bud. When bud break occurs in maples, the flavor of the sap becomes unpleasant. It is no longer desirable for making syrup, so the sugaring season comes to an end.
With just one exception, producers I've been in touch with are anticipating production of only about one third to one half of an average season's crop. A few are considering the possibility that they may end up with as little as a quarter of a crop. This comes as a tremendous disappointment, especially considering that these same producers were able to achieve record or near record production last year. In fact, New York state production in 2011 was the highest in 64 years.
A few of the producers that I've been in touch with feel they would have been able to increase the amount of sap they harvested this year had they gotten out into the woods two weeks earlier than they did. But none believe that their yields would have been that much greater.
Maple syrup production is an important agricultural industry in northern New York. A poor sugaring season doesn't just affect producers; it impacts seasonal employees, and those working in related businesses as well (i.e. equipment manufacturers, packaging suppliers, retailers who sell local maple products in their stores and at farmers markets).
If there is a bright spot in all of this, it is in the fact that the syrup that has been produced this season is, without exception, of extraordinary quality and outstanding flavor. What I've tasted, whether light, medium or dark amber, is absolutely delicious.