Snide jokes aside about sipping pumpkin spice lattes in March and showing children unplugged evaporators in October (“Hey kids, this is where we would be making syrup if we were making syrup”), producers are looking forward with cautious optimism and tamped-down expectations to the first-ever Maine Maple Producers Weekend.

The weekend, scheduled for Oct. 9-11, is, to some extent, a stand-in for Maine Maple Sunday, an annual March celebration that dates back almost 40 years and was canceled this year, for the first time ever, as the coronavirus pandemic barreled into Maine. The Maine Maple Producers Weekend is being held in conjunction with another new event, the North American Maple Tour, a weeklong event (intended to reduce crowds on any single day) with a larger geographic reach; it includes some other maple-producing states and parts of Canada.

These events won’t have, for the most part, the bells and whistles of the usual Maine Maple Sunday agritourism celebration. Thanks to COVID-19, or rather no thanks to it, visitors to a sugarbush later this month will find few pancake breakfasts, barbecues with maple-themed dishes to eat, free maple samples, live musical entertainments, blacksmith demonstrations and the like. Tours of steamy, fragrant sugarhouses and ganders at boiling sap are definitely out; even with hot days and cool nights, the sap doesn’t run in October, it goes without saying.

“I think the big thing is just to be safe,” said Jon Bailey, who answered the phone at Highland Farm Sugarworks in Cornish and described himself as a forester and family friend who helps out with the sugaring operations. “It’s going to be low-key. Everybody is trying to avoid the circus atmosphere. That’s not what we are going for. Just grab some maple syrup, see the views, and stay safe.”

Participants interviewed for this story, as well as The Maine Maple Producers Association, which is organizing the weekend event, also tout the fall foliage; farm walks; pumpkins, mums, and maple products for sale – from cotton candy and whoopie pies to syrup; and the chance to enjoy a crisp autumn day out-of-doors before the cold weather sets in and we’re stuck with doubtless more difficult interior social distancing. There is also a virtual component – a recipe contest (alas, you’ve missed the deadline to enter, but winners will be announced on Oct. 9.)

“We are kind of rewriting the book, as far as what we can do this year, to be able to comply with the state’s rules,” said Scott Dunn, president of the association.

As of late September, some 30 producers had signed up for the North American Maple Tour, and masks, social distancing, hand sanitizers, “cautious” and “safe” appear to be the common bywords. (A much bigger group, some 100 to 125 producers, take part in Maine Maple Sunday.)

A sign inside the retail shop at Hilltop Boilers in Newfield encourages customers to keep their social distance. The maple producer will be taking part in the upcoming Maine Maple Producers Weekend. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The association had long been considering adding a fall event to its roster, Dunn said. Finally doing so this year was one way to try to help sugarmakers in a tough year, he said, explaining that 50 to 80 percent of many producers’ annual sales happen during Maine Maple Sunday alone. (The good news this year? Sap flow. Dunn described it as a better than average year around the state, which is more than you can say for potatoes, blueberries and apples, all of which have been hurt by frosts and drought. Bailey, at Highland Farm Sugarworks, a small producer, described last March as “our best season.”)

Visitors tour Dunn Family Maple in Buxton as part of Maple Sunday in 2019. There won’t be crowds like these for Maine Maple Producers Weekend. And likely no snow either. Joel Page/Staff Photograher

That was also the month that Maine Maple Sunday was canceled just a week before its scheduled date. Thousands of Mainers usually trek to sugarhouses to watch syrup get made and taste and take home maple products. Hilltop Boilers in Newfield attracts 10,000-12,000 people annually, according to owner Michael Bryant. Balsam Ridge in Raymond entertains as many as 2,000, said Sharon Lloy, who owns the farm with her husband Dewey.

Producers not only lost the money they expected to earn, but they also took a hit on the pies, cookies, candies and the like they’d already stockpiled for the event. (Fortunately, unopened maple syrup is reasonably shelf-stable.) So like many other businesses around the state, maple producers have adapted. On the fly, the Lloys turned their usual Maine Maple Sunday celebration into a drive-thru event with “in and out access,” Sharon Lloy said. Hilltop Boilers quickly found a company in Massachusetts with giant freezers that could hold some of their prepared maple products until they could be gradually sold online. Over the spring and summer, maple producers tried to make up for the loss of Maine Maple Sunday revenue with online sales, farm pickups of maple products, and participation in farmers markets.

The fact that “a lot of people are wanting to buy local” helped, said Suzanne Dunham of Dunham Farm-Velvet Hollow Sugar Works in Greenwood. “They don’t want to go into the big stores as much, and I think they are trying to be supportive of local businesses, as well.”

Still, while, “everyone is saying their sales are up for the year” otherwise, Dunn said, “the loss of Maine Maple Sunday is pretty much impossible to make up for.”

No one expects comparable sales at the Maine Maple Producers Weekend this month. Certainly, no one wants comparable crowds. “As excited as I am for the event, I am also so nervous,” said Bryant, of Hilltop Boilers, which also felt the loss of restaurant sales this spring; it supplies maple syrup to Becky’s Diner and the Miss Portland Diner, both in Portland. “We’ve got to limit the numbers. I am not used to holding events where sales are not the priority, but safety has to be.”

This year, anyway. The Maine Maple Producers Association hopes to make it an annual event, and everybody hopes these hard times will be in the rearview mirror next year. Meanwhile, is it difficult to persuade visitors to sign on for a maple event that, in traditional terms, anyway, is unseasonal?

“That’s something we just don’t know,” Lloy said. “It’s kind of a big unknown. 2020 is just a completely different year. It’s full of the unexpected. Basically, we’re just focused on an opportunity for families to get out into the nice outdoors on a fall day and get a taste of maple.”

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Maple Pecan Cookies

Maple-Pecan Cookies Photo courtesy of Suzanne Dunham

This gluten-free recipe comes from Suzanne Dunham of Dunham Farm-Velvet Hollow Sugar Works in Greenwood. Dunham specializes in gluten-free items, including the cornbread she will be selling for takeout on Maine Maple Producers Weekend alongside her barbecue maple-turkey chili. The farm will have picnic tables set up outside where visitors can eat while listening to live fiddle music. “We’re in the foothills here, so we have really nice views,” Dunham said. “We also have hiking/snowmobile trails, so we are encouraging people to take hike to top of Christopher Mountain. We’re encouraging an outdoor experience.”

Makes approximately 48 cookies

COOKIE:

2 1/3 cups brown rice flour
2/3 cup tapioca flour
1 cup potato starch
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup light brown sugar
½ cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
¼ cup dark maple syrup
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 ½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon xanthan gum

MAPLE GLAZE:

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1/8 cup dark maple syrup
1/8 cup maple sugar (optional)
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
Pecans (or another kind of nut), chopped fine

 

Set the oven temperature to 375 degrees F.

Make a gluten-free flour blend by combining the brown rice flour, tapioca flour and potato starch. Set aside.

Blend the butter and sugars together in a mixer until they are smooth. Add the eggs, maple syrup and vanilla and mix until thoroughly combined. Add the reserved gluten-free flour, the baking powder, salt and xanthan gum to the mixture and blend. The cookie dough will be thick.

Transfer the dough to a piece of plastic wrap and spread it out to about ½ inch thick, then fold the edges of the wrap over the mixture and freeze until solid. When it is frozen, remove the dough from the freezer and unwrap onto a new piece of plastic wrap that has been dusted with brown rice flour to prevent sticking.

Roll out the dough to about ¼-inch thickness (thicker if you prefer, in which case the cookies will need to bake a little longer).

Line cookie sheets with parchment paper. Cut out the dough into rounds and place the cookies 2 inches apart on the cookie sheets. Bake in the preheated oven for about 8 minutes, until the edges are lightly golden. Let the cookies sit on the sheets for a few minutes, and then transfer to a cooling rack to cool.

While the cookies are cooling, make the glaze. Beat the butter in a bowl until smooth. Add the maple syrup, maple sugar and confectioners’ sugar and continue to beat until well combined.

Place the pecans on a piece of parchment paper. Frost the cooled cookies with a thin layer of glaze, then turn upside down and dip lightly into the pecans. Place on another cookie sheet and transfer to the freezer to set the frosting, which will take about 10 minutes.

Spiced Pumpkin Pancakes with Cranberries Photo by Peggy Grodinsky

Spiced Pumpkin Pancakes

Combine maple syrup with fall pumpkins in honor of the first ever Maine Maple Producers Weekend with this recipe adapted lightly from “The Pancake Handbook: Specialties from Bette’s Oceanview Diner.” As Sharon Lloy of Balsam Ridge in Raymond, said, “The cooler weather is coming in and people are more interested in making pancakes and making waffles, and then there are pumpkin pancakes. What doesn’t go great with maple syrup?” We heartily second that.

Yield: About 16 (3½-inch) pancakes, serves 4

¾ cup all-purpose flour
½ cup whole-wheat flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
¾ cup canned pumpkin
1 cup milk
2 eggs, separated
2 tablespoons butter, melted
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup cranberries, optional, halved if large

Maple syrup and butter, for serving

In a large bowl, combine the flours, baking powder and spices. In a separate bowl, combine the pumpkin, milk, egg yolks, butter and salt. Add the liquid ingredients to the dry ones, all at once, with the cranberries, stirring just to blend. The batter will be slightly lumpy.

Place the egg whites in a separate bowl. Beat until they are stiff but not dry. Gently fold the whites into the pancake batter.

Heat an oiled griddle over medium-high heat. Portion scant ¼-cup measures of batter onto the hot griddle, spacing them apart. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes, until bubbles cover the surface of the pancakes, and their undersides are lightly browned. Gently turn them over and cook for about 2 more minutes, until the second side is brown. Serve with maple syrup and butter.


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