Cold weather puts freeze on maple sugar season

The Recorder. February 24 2015. Tom Relihan.
In New England, the last week of February is usually a time when buckets and tubes can be seen popping up on maple trees along local roads, ready to catch their sap as winter gives way to sugar season, a harbinger of spring.

But for Howard Boyden, the owner of Boyden Brothers Maple on Route 116 in Conway, and many other sugar houses across Franklin County, this month’s ongoing streak of bitterly cold weather has put the breaks on much of the preparation for the coming maple-making season.

“It’s basically making it not happen,” Boyden said. “Everything’s frozen- the woods, the ground, the trees.”

The month, the average low has been minus 3 – far lower that last February’s average of 15. For the last 12 days, the lows have all been at or below zero, and the month’s average high so far this year is 25, compared to last year’s average of 33.

According to Greenfield public works data, the temperature plunged to minus-17 on Tuesday. Records show that the last time it came close to that was on Feb. 5th 1996, when it was minus-16.

Boyden said the snow and freezing weather is making it difficult to get around in the woods and set up equipment. To collect sap, he uses a system of plastic tubes strung among the trees, but he said the cold weather has rendered them inflexible. For now, he’s spent the past two days organizing that tubing and moving snow banks away from where his roadside sap tanks will need to be replaced.

“There’s not a lot that can be done until it warms up,” he said.

Even if the preparation work, which takes about 10 days, were able to be completed, the sap can’t begin running until temperatures rise above freezing, Boyden said. The process relies on a cycle of freezing at night and thawing during the day to push the sap through the tree’s cellulose. Until that cycle can begin, there will be no sap.

Boyden said the equipment is usually set up and ready for first runnings by the third week in February and generally taps the trees on March 1st.

“I can see that’s not going to happen this year, but we’ll probably be up and running by the end of the first week of March,” Boyden said. “we’re hoping for the weather to break after this weekend.”

Though the sub-zero temperatures have prevented the sap from flowing thus far, the large amount of snowfall the area has seen could actually prove advantageous once the temperatures do rise, Boyden said.

“Later in the month, when we have some marginally cool weather, you tend to get more freezing-thawing action with a good snow pack,” he said. “It has to freeze at night or it won’t flow, and the radiational cooling from the snow could actually help and extend the season a bit.”

Once the season beings, Boyden said, the sugarhouse usually collects between 40,000 and 50,000 gallons of sap over the course of 12 to 16 runs. to produce one gallon of syrup, he said 40 gallons of sap must be boiled. At the Williams Farm Sugarhouse in Deerfield, owner Chip Williams said he’s in much the same boat as Boyden.

“We traditionally start a bit earlier, usually the week of school vacation, but it’s just too cold and there’s not much we can do.”

Due to the sugarhouse’s lower elevation, Williams said they usually start getting sap earlier than some of the other area producers, but this year everyone is behind schedule. He said the farm planned to open up their restaurant on Friday, but had to delay that as well due to a frozen drain line.

“In 20 years, we’ve never had to delay opening. The cold is really doing a number,” he said.

He said he hopes to start putting out taps this weekend, so when the weather does turn, the farm won’t miss out on any sap.

Tom McCrumm, the owner of South Face Farm in Ashfield, is preparing to open the farm’s sugarhouse and restaurant this weekend. Though he and his employees have been out in the woods digging through the snow and tapping trees to prepare, he said it’s tough to predict when the season will begin in earnest.

“We’re opening the sugarhouse this weekend and getting ready to boil sap, but I comes when it comes. We have no control over it,” he said. “Some years we’re boiling by now, some years we’re not. The weather dictates all in the farming business, and there is no predicting it”

Last year, the sap didn’t start flowing until the middle of March, he said. The year before that, it started in late February.

“The weather is what it is,” said McCrumm. “It’s not unusual to have below-zero weather right now, it’s still February- still winter- but so much of it is unusual.”

McCrumm said he still expects the season to begin soon, despite the deep freeze.

“The nice thing about maple season in New England is that it means spring is not far behind,” McCrumm said. “We all love what we do and can’t wait to get started”