T ake a walk through the woods of Jeff Cornell’s Holley Hill Farm and you’ll see the signs: Miles and miles of green plastic tubes strung together between hundreds of trees. The sap has begun to run, ushering in the start of this year’s maple syrup season.
Over the last few weekends, Cornell, his wife Linda, and his son Charles who is home from college, have been busy putting out more than 800 taps on the family’s farm in Hartford.
Cornell, who has been producing maple syrup for the past 27 years, is hopeful that this year will be better than last.
“I’ve seen some bad years and I’ve seen some good years, and last year was not good. It got too warm too early,” Cornell said. “I hope to easily top last year, but we’re just getting started.”
That brand of cautious optimism is shared by many of the region’s maple syrup producers who are hoping the weather cooperates during what is a relatively brief season.
“If we get four weeks we’d be really happy,” said Pam Green of Green’s Sugarhouse in Poultney, Vt. “Last year was half that. It was discouraging and pretty scary, but we’re very optimistic this year.”
Last year’s maple season came on very quickly and ended almost as suddenly. During a typical season the sap begins to run in late February or early March and will continue to run for an average of four weeks. But last year at this time, producers were already boiling sap and the season was half as long as is normal.
Most producers began tapping trees earlier this month and for many the sap has just begun to flow.
“It’s still very early. It started running a little today (Monday), but nothing spectacular. I’m hoping it will break loose,” said Vernon Scribner, who put out approximately 4,000 taps this year on his property in Whitehall.
Scribner put the first of those taps out on President’s Day and placed the final one on Tuesday.
“I’m from the old school. I don’t believe in tapping too early because the taps dry out if they sit too long. You try to anticipate and tap just before its going to run,” he said.
But there’s plenty to do before the taps go into the trees.
Green said her husband, Rich, heads into the woods in February looking for fallen limbs and damaged lines, and because they use a wood-fired evaporator that requires 35 to 40 cords of wood, the Greens spend months cutting stores of wood.
“It’s good to have at least one year’s worth of nice, dry, hot wood,” Green said.
Producers also have to clear lines, clean and sanitize equipment, and get their sugar shacks in order.
Despite their preseason preparation, many producers will tell you their success will ultimately be tied to the weather during the next month, especially temperatures, which are absolutely critical to the maple sugaring process.
“It’s very dependent on the weather,” said Green. “And weather can be fickle and sometimes cruel.”
Once the mercury starts to rise above freezing, the sap begins to flow. If temperatures soar too high too soon, the sap can spoil and the tap holes will heal faster.
“You like to see the temperatures swing down into the 20s at night because the tree needs to freeze and then during the day you want it between 38 and 42 degrees,” Cornell said.
It also helps when the ground is frozen, something that was missing last year.
“Last year there was no frost in the ground and then we got some warm weather and it was over,” said Scribner. “I’m very optimistic. It’s shaping up like it could possibly be a good year because there’s frost in the ground and we’ve had a substantially cold winter.”
Ground frost and a little snow helps moderate temperatures, especially on days when the temperatures rise into the 50s.
Sunny, high pressure weather is also good for the flow of sap, Scribner said.
Once producers have a large amount of sap, they begin the boiling process. During the height of the season, it typically takes 40 to 45 gallons of sap to make a single gallon of maple syrup.
“Most sugar makers will tell you what kind of season they’ve had when it’s over,” Cornell said. “The next week and a half looks good. Hopefully it’s a good year.”