Maple sugar season still going, record year for some

WILLIAMSBURG — This week, while many Valley residents put away winter jackets and got out gardening tools, steam billowed from Paul’s Sugarhouse on Route 9 as though it was still the middle of winter.

Spring may be in full swing in the lower elevations in the Valley, but some producers in higher elevations, usually done sugaring by the end of March, are planning to boil at least through the weekend.

Sugarhouse co-owner Paul Zononi said the seven-week sugaring season he’s having means a record-setting year. He usually makes about 800 gallons of syrup in a season, and his best year was 1,000 gallons.

“We should make 1,200 gallons this year,” he said Friday while he, his wife Serena and their employees continued to collect and boil sap. “The guys in the Valley are pretty much done, but the guys in the Hilltowns are still going strong.”

While it has been banner year for some producers like Zononi, it hasn’t been nearly as good for those in the high elevations. In Worthington, for instance, it was too cold for the sap to run well in March, which is the most important month for sugaring. For sap to move, nights need to be below freezing (ideally, 20 degrees) and days need to be above freezing (ideally, 40 degrees).

And sugar house owners down in the Valley aren’t seeing a longer season because sap ceased flowing there last week when the nights stopped freezing consistently.

But producers in the sweet spot elevation-wise, or those who collect sap from both high and low elevations, are happily boiling away as the season continues into early April. And most sugar producers are grateful for the long season after 2012, when spring temperatures came early and cut the season off.

Sweet success

Zononi predicted he would be able to collect and boil sap at least through Sunday, but the forecast after that looks too warm for him to stretch the season further.

“It is unusually late, but there’s still snow on the ground, the nights are still freezing and sap is still running,” he said. “My wife is on snowshoes up in Cummington walking the pipeline right now.”

North Hadley Sugar Shack Manager Shelly Boisvert said that, thanks to their sugarbush in Buckland, where temperatures are still ideal for sap flow, they are on track to produce a record-high 1,800 gallons of syrup this year.

“This season has pretty much blown any other season away,” she said Friday. “It’s not natural for us to still be boiling, but we’re riding it as long as we can.”

They make about 1,000 gallons most years, and this season have already produced 1,500 gallons, Boisvert said.

“And we’re not done yet. We still have a lot left to boil,” she said. “It was just an awesome season. It’s gone longer and also the amount of sap we collected is up this year.”

Because of the warmer temperatures in Hadley, sap buckets there have been dry since last week. Like Zononi, she expects the season will end for everyone next week.

In Worthington, with an elevation of about 1,433 feet, producers are also planning to sugar through the weekend. But at the Red Bucket Sugar Shack, even with an extra week of boiling, owners Le Ann and Jeff Mason will only produce half of what they normally do because of an unusually cold March.

“Some folks have had a stupendous, fabulous year,” Le Ann Mason said, adding that she is happy for her fellow sugarers. “But producers up in elevations such as ourselves — even north of us and toward Canada — have not fared well.”

She said there was a long stretch in March when it was too cold at night — in the teens — and daytime temperatures never got above freezing. “We were what we call frozen up,” she said.

Another factor was the amount of snow that surrounded the bases of the trees from February on.

“If the base of the tree is packed with snow, it can be 50 degrees out and it won’t run because the roots are still frozen,” she said.

“Now we’re looking at it running very well in the next few days, but then it’s the end of the season,” she said.

Sugaring this late in the spring, when temperatures during the day can be over 50 degrees, does have its drawbacks.

“The sugar content of the sap goes down, right now it’s about 1 percent,” Boisvert said. That means they have to boil about 60 gallons of sap, compared to the usual 40 gallons, to make one gallon of syrup, she said.

The sap also won’t keep as long in tanks or barrels in warm weather, Zononi said, because bacteria spoils it. “You’ve got to boil it right away,” he said.

If the sugar maples start to bud, the season is over because the syrup from maples that have budded has a bitter taste.

“And when it gets really warm, that’s it,” Zononi said. “The sap stops running if it’s in the 60s.”