While no one knows for sure who was first to tap a maple tree, when it comes right down to it, the basic elements of gathering sap and producing maple syrup haven't really changed very much over time. Whether you're tapping one sugar maple or 10,000, you have to put a hole in a tree, collect the sap that flows from the hole, and boil it down to the proper consistency.
Yes. It is true that over the years metal buckets replaced birch bark baskets and wooden pails, that flat pans on stoves or in furnaces proved more efficient than large kettles and open fires, and that tubing systems now enable small family farms to collect greater amounts of fresh sap in the most efficient and hygienic way possible, but the basics remain essentially the same. Little has changed. Except perhaps, the weather.
This has been a most unusual winter! The unseasonably warm weather and lack of snowfall that we have been experiencing are the result of a prolonged and unusual weather pattern that appears to be affecting the entire nation; essentially a jet stream that has been keeping cold air to our north. (And you thought it was because you finally broke down and bought that snowblower.)
A lot of people are saying that this is sap-producing weather. And some experienced maple producers, as well as beginners, have been tapping their trees several weeks earlier than usual.
Traditionally, maple syrup makers have waited until the very end of February or the beginning of March to head out into the woods to tap their sugar maple trees, to be ready for the freezing and thawing temperatures associated with the coming of longer days, and the sap runs they rely on for making maple syrup. In recent years, however, their thinking has been changing.
The perception among many New York and New England maple syrup producers is that the region now receives considerably more warm weather during the tapping season than it once did. Perhaps even too much. There is a general feeling that sap flows may not be as heavy in late winter and early spring as they once were, and that they are certainly less consistent, that spring often comes earlier and that the winters are less severe. And more and more, producers are tapping earlier and earlier than their ancestors did.
It's a bit of a conundrum, one that the entire Cornell Cooperative Extension Sugar Maple Team, a group of CCE educators and colleagues from adjoining states: has been exploring for several years; tap too early, so the theory goes, and the holes may run poorly later in the season when the weather is favorable for good sap runs; tap too late and miss some of the best early season weather.
In 2008, a group of Cornell researchers, including Professor Brian F. Chabot of Cornell University's Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Director of the New York State Maple Program, Steve Childs, New York State Maple Specialist, Peter J. Smallidge, New York State Extension Forester, Michael Farrell, Northern NY Maple Specialist and Director of Cornell Uihlein Research Forest in Lake Placid, Michelle Ledoux of CCE Lewis County, and myself, collaborated with one maple producer in each of six northern New York counties to test the effect of early tapping. In December and January of that year, nine tubing systems, each consisting of plastic spouts and tubing installed to connect a set of 4 trees to a 6-gallon bucket were installed at each of the six locations. Three of these tubing systems (using 12 trees) were tapped in January, another three in February, and the final three in March. Every time the sap flowed, before the 6 gallon bucket was emptied into a larger tank, the cooperating producers recorded the total volume of sap collected and sap sugar content. At the end of the season, the data was sent to Northern New York Maple Specialist Michael Farrell.
With the exception of the Clinton County site, where significant amounts of sap were collected in February increasing overall yields, substantial amounts of sap were not obtained until March and April. Therefore, early tapping did not significantly increase production.
The study, although not beyond question, resulted in the following conclusions. Producers at lower elevations and in warmer climates of northern New York could likely increase their overall yield by tapping early. They should consider tapping as early as January, if the long range forecast indicates that there will be periods of at least two to three days of sap flow.
For producers at higher elevations and in colder areas of northern New York, waiting until late February or March before starting to tap was recommended. The belief is that, even though there may be some sap flow in January and February, it would most likely be insignificant, and that it makes sense to wait until just before the first flows of March to start tapping to ensure that the tapholes will be as fresh as possible for the more extensive sap flows of April.
In researching this article, Uihlein Director Farrell also referred me to similar research conducted by the folks at University of Vermont's Proctor Maple Research Center, research that he believes would "support the notion that we should seriously consider tapping early to take advantage of early sap flows." The Proctor research concludes that, "Under both gravity and vacuum, sap flow from tapholes drilled in January and February was comparable to sap flow from much fresher holes during the cooler part of the sap flow season. Toward the end of the season, when temperatures had exceeded 50 degrees F on several days, January and February tapholes yielded less sap than newer tapholes. In years when many of the sap flow periods involve relatively low temperatures, perhaps 40 degrees or less, the additional yield from early tapping may provide a significant advantage compared to tapping on March 1st."
The Proctor report also stated that "results from these experiments are consistent with the interpretation that microorganism growth during warm weather is responsible for the cessation of sap flow from tapholes,"
Neither the Cornell nor the Proctor research address the possible difficulties that might occur when attempting to process sap to syrup in January and February, should thaws be followed by sub-zero weather conditions.