Maple sugaring season comes at long last to Valley, as producers hope for best after long-delayed start

WILLIAMSBURG — Easy does it. Now that maple sap is flowing, sugarers hope spring continues to play hide-and-seek in the Valley to salvage a sluggish season.

With night freezes and daytime thaws finally here, sugarers are making syrup, starting in earnest to boil at a time of year when they have sometimes been wrapping up.

At the Lawton Family Sugarhouse in Williamsburg, Bill Turner had produced just 11 gallons by Sunday. This time last year, the small family operation, founded by Deb Turner’s great-great-great grandfather George Lawton, was halfway to the 133.5 gallons it produced from trees on an adjoining sugarbush of 40 to 50 acres.

“From what I hear, we haven’t missed much,” Turner said. “Everybody’s in the same boat.”

Unlike past years, when March has brought thaws, 2015 remained cold through the month. “This year it was more like an old-fashioned year,” Bill Turner said.

The depth of snow in the Hilltowns may help preserve sugaring conditions, several maple producers said this week in interviews beside their evaporators. Deep snow still on the ground at high elevations helps moderate rising daytime temperatures and preserve the freeze-and-thaw cycle maple producers need for a robust sap flow.

“I hope it keeps running and that we can make some decent syrup before it goes to dark,” said Deb Turner, referring to the hues that result with sap gathered later in the season, when warm temperatures bring up bacteria levels and affect quality and taste.

Paul Zononi, who taps trees on a few hundred Hilltown acres, estimated Sunday inside his Williamsburg sugarhouse that he has produced just 40 percent of the syrup he expected to turn out. Zononi said he hoped to do better.

“We got to. We have to,” he said. “Nationally, nobody’s making syrup. Our production is barely keeping up with our sales.”

Usually, his season wraps up April 1. This year, Zononi is playing catch-up. He is hauling 4,000 to 5,000 gallons of sap a day down Route 9 from land he owns or leases in Goshen and Cummington.

Zononi first boiled March 13, earlier than many Hilltown sugarers, instead of starting the first week of March. His operation produced 1,000 gallons of syrup last year, the last 200 of them darker commercial grades because the 2014 season was also late.

At South Face Farm in Ashfield, visitors on Sunday passed a stone-cold evaporator on their way in to the restaurant now run by the Olanyk family. The farm, owned by Tom McCrumm, has been making syrup this year, but did not have enough sap to boil on Sunday because it remained at freezing or below in the sugarbush the day before.

“The weather forecast looks pretty good for this week,” said Todd Olanyk, as restaurant customers waiting for tables sipped coffee near displays on sugaring history. “Hopefully, we’ll make up for it.”

His restaurant, like most in the Hilltowns, will remain open for two more weekends.

As a veteran producer, McCrumm smiles at the notion that anything can be predicted in an agricultural enterprise.

“There is no such thing as average,” he said. “People have to understand. It’s all dependent on the weather.”

McCrumm estimated that his sugarhouse has produced one quarter to one third of the syrup it may make this year.

By the calendar alone, the season should be nearly over. Last year, after the late start, conditions allowed for 17 days of boiling that enabled the farm to produce 825 gallons of syrup. “We had this continuous, long stretch of sap weather,” he said of 2014.

While good endings are possible, they are jeopardized by rapidly warming days. He is buying sap this year from Heath and Colrain, two Franklin County towns at high elevations where the snowpack may help extend the sap season.

“Most producers would rather start early than start late and have to see how far it goes,” McCrumm said. “We don’t know how far ahead of us this end will be.”