Just days ahead of the annual Maine Maple Sunday, several central Maine maple syrup producers say they are concerned that colder-than-usual temperatures this month have left their taps dry and stifled chances of having fresh syrup for the public.
It hasn’t even been warm enough at Wilson Family Maple Syrup in Albion to tap a tree, said operator Sherry Wilson.
The average temperature a few miles west in Waterville so far this month has been about 16 degrees, according to the National Weather Service. Last year’s average was 33 degrees.
“It’s been too bitter cold,” Wilson said. “We used to tap the trees during February. It’s gotten later and later each year.”
For sap to flow in maple trees, the temperature has to be above freezing, preferably in the low 40s, followed by freezing temperatures at night.
Wilson’s farm has participated in the state’s annual maple syrup promotion, Maine Maple Sunday, since 1998, even beginning the festivities on Saturday to accommodate the roughly 3,000 visitors who come to the farm to see demonstrations and satisfy their sweet tooth.
Because of a lack of syrup production to start the year and chilly temperatures — the weekend is expected to be in the mid-30s, with a chance of snow Saturday — Wilson anticipates a drop in attendance.
“I think it’ll be much lower this year — you can only hope otherwise,” she said. “We look forward to Maple Sunday, but it’s getting harder every year.”
Michael Bryant, secretary and treasurer for Maine Maple Producers Association, said that the harsh winter has been a problem for many maple syrup producers in the state. Geography plays a big role, he said, and northern Maine producers often run into the problem that this year also face producers in the central and southern part of the state.
Regardless of the slow start to the season, Bryant said the possibility of postponing Maine Maple Sunday has not been considered.
“Some sugar houses requested a change in the date, but that’s impossible to do with all the advertising and marketing built around this day,” Bryant said. “We’re going to do the best we can with what sugar we have made and make the best out of a bad situation.”
A teacher at Massabesic High School in Waterboro, Bryant also works at Hilltop Boilers in Newfield in southern Maine, and the slow start to the season has plagued their production.
“We’ve usually made 80 to 90 percent of our seasonal inventory by now, but we’re at about 15 percent,” he said.
Whitefield syrup producer Tim Chase, said he has only been getting about a fourth of the output he usually gets from his 275 taps at Tim’s Sugarshack.
“I’ve only made 12 gallons of syrup when this time last year I had closer to 50 gallons,” he said.
It’s ideal to have syrup production well underway before Maine Maple Sunday, Chase said, because that’s when he sells the majority of the syrup he makes at his small Grand Army Road operation. He and his wife, Martha, planned to let people come to watch syrup get made and offer treats made with maple syrup as part of the statewide event.
“This is kind of unusual,” Chase said. “Two years ago, it was just the opposite. It got warm in February and by the eighth of March we were warmed up and done. I was talking with someone in the northern part of the state and they don’t even think they’ll start boiling until April.”
Farther north, in Somerset and Franklin counties, producers weren’t faring much better.
“We haven’t made any yet, the sap isn’t running anywhere,” said Diane Haulk, who runs Haulk’s Maple in Madison with her husband, Robert. “Usually we have 250 to 300 gallons of syrup by Maple Sunday.”
Wilton syrup producer Roger Hall said while he hasn’t had sap run yet from his 150 trees, he still plans to partake in Sunday’s festivities at his Weld Road farm. Hall said residents are still invited regardless of the temperature to come down to Sweet Maple Farm and see the equipment used to make syrup.
“We let people come right up and see the evaporator so they can watch us pour sap. A lot of the bigger ones are all closed off and all you can see is stainless steel,” he said.
The sugar houses and maple farms that participate in the annual event continues to grow, Bryant said, adding that about 100 maple syrup producers participate throughout the state, compared to 70 last year, with large producers cultivating sap from thousands of trees, to individual producers who do it as a hobby.
For Canaan-based Linwood Acres operator Ethan Robertson and his wife, Emilee, producing maple syrup is just that, a hobby. But for Robertson, 35, who has produced syrup with his father in New Hampshire since he was a toddler, Maine Maple Sunday is an important day regardless of the weather woes.
“For me, with it being mostly a hobby, it works well to sell most of my goods that one weekend,” Robertson said. “I’m keeping my fingers crossed that with the nasty winter, all the people snowmobiling and ice fishing are looking for something else to do. It does seem like maple weekend is the best when it’s the first warm sunny day and it’s kind of muddy.”
While the weather has played a factor in the production of new syrup, most of the farms owners said they still have plenty of products for sale during the weekend’s festivities, including bottled syrup, candy, ice cream and, at least at Haulk’s Maple in Madison, maple-cooked hot dogs.
“I don’t really think people will care about the weather,” said Diane Haulk of Madison. “They know spring is around the corner and they’re short on syrup.”