Sugar shacks throughout the state have gotten an early jump on maple syrup production this year, with producers hoping to rebound from a difficult 2015.

“I think people are hopeful that it’s going to be a better season,” said John Bott, spokesman for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. “But we’ll produce whatever the weather allows us to produce.”

The ideal weather for maple syrup production is temperature below freezing overnight and above freezing during the day.

Mike Meagher who operates Maine-iac Maple Farm in Richmond with his wife, Alice, was tapping the 200 maple trees on his 15-acre property earlier than usual this year.

“It’s normal that (March) is the month that works, but we started the last week of February,” Meagher said from his sugar shack at 56 Mitchell Road in Richmond. “We are a small producer, and it was early for us.”

Meagher, 68, said some producers in other parts of the state took advantage of a warm spell in late January and “put their taps in and got an early run,” but then there was another freeze, so he kept his taps out.

Last year, Meagher said, he was able to produce some syrup, despite the poor conditions driven by heavy snow and bitter cold, but only about half of what he’d normally make.

“There was just so much snow and it was so cold,” Meagher said. “It was so cold for a while, and then it just ended. Once it got too warm and the buds started to come out on the trees, everyone was done.”

Lyle Merrifield typically taps about 600 trees per year. He’s also the president of the Maine Maple Producers Association, and he said the community is excited about the prospects for this season.

“I think producers are more optimistic because we started better (than last year),” Merrifield said via telephone from his farm in Gorham. “We are hoping the season holds on for another couple of weeks.”

The majority of Merrifield’s business — and that of other producers in the state — occurs on the fourth Sunday in March, Maine Maple Sunday. This year, the 33rd annual event happens to fall on Easter, but Merrifield doesn’t see that as a bad thing.

“Obviously it’s not ideal, but many of us have had Maine Maple Sundays on Easter in the past, and we have noticed very little decrease in the amount of business,” Merrifield said. “Some people are happy to have something else to do with their families that day.”

Maine Maple Sunday is a showcase for the production of maple syrup around the state. Sugarhouses — about 100 across the state — host visitors, sometimes numbering in the thousands, Meagher said, and offer tours of their production sites, demonstrations, free samples of syrup and other maple-related and family activities.

In China, Doug and Gail Tibbetts have operated Raider’s Sugarhouse since 2003 and have had average production so far this year. Doug Tibbetts said they started the season about two weeks ago and have had a few syrup runs already.

“As long as we have cold nights continuously, we’ll be OK,” Tibbetts said. “My syrup runs have been good.”

Tibbetts said he does his best business on Maine Maple Sunday, though he didn’t want to jinx it by placing a number on the amount of sales.

“I think (having it on Easter) will add to my traffic because the majority of people won’t have much else to do, because all the stores are closed,” Tibbetts said. “I expect it will be bigger than a normal sugar Sunday. People will go to the sugarhouses.”

Farther north, though, some are still waiting to tap the trees.

Jim Harvell, at Mystic Valley Maples on U.S. Route 2 in East Dixfield, in Franklin County, said it’s been too cold so far this year to begin tapping his maple trees for sap.

He said on the farm’s Facebook page that he’s “just waiting on Mother Nature to string together a few warm days.”

“It’s still too cold. Nothing’s running for me,” Harvell said by phone Thursday. “Looking at the 10-day forecast, I’m hoping for next week. Last year I never made a drop of syrup until April 1.”

Harvell said he has about 800 taps ready to go.

Diane Haulk, at Haulk’s Maple, with 2,000 taps on U.S. Route 201 in Madison, said his business hasn’t started tapping yet either. The farm normally starts tapping in the middle of March.

“Nothing’s a guarantee with the weather we’ve been getting,” she said. “We haven’t gotten anything.”

Haulk said the operation needs to have 500 gallons of raw sap before it can begin using its evaporator, and “we’re a far cry from there. It’s just crazy.”

Haulk said his crew is “kind of concerned about what the season will do,” as far as the weather goes.

At the Tessier Farm on Malbons Mills Road in Skowhegan, Jason Tessier said he has about 150 taps, but the sap is running slowly.

“I would say it’s been a slow start,” Tessier said. “We did a little bit of spotty sap here and there, but it really hasn’t started heavy yet.”

He said March is the farm’s traditional sap and tap season, so he’s looking forward to Maine Maple Sunday. The farm makes about 25 gallons of syrup each year.

Gov. Paul LePage also honors maple season with the annual governor’s tree tapping Tuesday morning at the Blaine House. Bott said the state continues to promote the Maine maple industry and the event with LePage is the official start of the season.

Bott said despite a season typically lasting four to six weeks, studies show only about 15 good sap flow days on average. He said some spots have had a half-dozen days already this season.

Bott cautioned that despite the early start, it doesn’t necessarily mean the season will last longer than normal.

“Because it started earlier, you have the potential to be longer and more productive,” Bott said. “However, if there’s an early spring, it could cut the season short.”

Maine produced the third-most maple syrup in the U.S. last year, behind Vermont and New York, according to a report from the National Agricultural Statistics Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture The state made 16 percent — or 553,000 gallons — of the 3,414,000 gallons produced in the country.

Maine’s production increased by 8,000 gallons of maple syrup compared to the 2014 total, even though the number of taps was the same. The 2015 season opened Feb. 9 and closed May 8. This year’s report is expected sometime this summer.

Meagher hopes the report shows an even greater increase this year.

“So far it’s been pretty good, and it looks like it’ll be pretty good for a while,” he said as he walked back to his house, where his wife was labeling syrup bottles. “It’s been good this last week and hopefully it stays good.”

Staff writer Doug Harlow contributed to this story.

 

Jason Pafundi — 621-5663

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Twitter: @jpafundikj