Prolonged cold delays maple sugar season

Daily Hampshire Gazette. February 25 2015. Chris Lindahl and Tom Relihan

Farmer Leo Aloisi of Westhampton spent much of Wednesday out in his woods, plowing trails and relying on snowshoes to check on his three-mile network of plastic tubing that will, once the temperature warms up, bring gallons of sap into his sugar shack to make maple syrup.

While the last week in February is typically the beginning of maple syrup season, this year Aloisi and other local producers are forced to wait on the weather.

“Usually we’re boiling by this time of year — we’re a week behind,” said Anita Aloisi, Leo’s wife.

But at the Aloisis’ Strawbale Cafe, the syrup flows even when the sap doesn’t.

The Aloisis operate the restaurant as part of Hanging Mountain Farm year-round, serving the farm’s maple syrup. During sugaring season, the menu is boiled down to a few essential items — namely those that cry for a coating of maple syrup — to accommodate the huge influx of visitors the season brings, Aloisi said.

On a typical weekend, the family serves about 250 people in its cafe. From the end of February through early March, that number jumps to 600, she said.

“Everybody likes to have the sugarhouse experience,” she said.

While many sugarhouses ensure they have enough syrup to feed hungry customers this time of year, this month’s ongoing streak of bitter cold has put the brakes on much of the preparation for the coming maple syrup season. According to the National Weather Service, the Pioneer Valley had 27 straight days of below-freezing average daily temperatures until Sunday. The ongoing deep freeze means a late start for maple syrup production, which relies on cold nights and warmer days to get sap flowing.

“We traditionally start a bit earlier, usually the week of school vacation,” said Kenneth “Chip” Williams IV, owner of the Williams Farm Sugarhouse in Deerfield. “But it’s just too cold and there’s not much we can do.”

Williams said his farm usually starts getting sap earlier than some of the other area producers, because of the sugarhouse’s lower elevation, but this year everyone is behind schedule. He noted that he had planned to open the restaurant Friday, but was forced to delay due to a frozen drain line.

“In 20 years, we’ve never had to delay opening. The cold is really doing a number,” Williams said. The sugarhouse is now scheduled to open March 6.

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

Stephen Holt of Westhampton said he opened his restaurant, Steve’s Sugar Shack, last weekend even though he’s about 10 days behind schedule in tapping trees.

“The ideal situation for sugaring is about 20 at night and 40 to 45 during the day,” he said. “We’re not even coming close to those numbers.”

With sugaring, the bottom line depends on weather. Holt said he plans for that by keeping enough syrup from the previous season to feed his customers for two weekends.

While the temperature rose last Sunday, cold temperatures returned Monday and the National Weather Service reported a low of minus-18 early Tuesday at the Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee. Next Sunday, the high is expected to hit 30 degrees, warming up to 35 on Monday.

Holt said it typically takes him about six days to set up the 1,000 taps he uses to draw sap from trees. He said he hopes to start that long process if the weather cooperates Sunday.

Season hard to predict

Tom McCrumm, the owner of South Face Farm in Ashfield, is preparing to open the farm’s sugarhouse and restaurant this weekend. Although 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 it 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’s no predicting it”

Last year, the sap did not start flowing until the middle of March, McCrumm 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.”

Howard Boyden, owner of Boyden Brothers Maple on Route 116 in Conway, said, “Everything’s frozen — the woods, the ground, the trees.”

Boyden said the snow and freezing weather are 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 spent two days this week organizing that tubing and moving snowbanks away from where his roadside sap tanks will need to be placed.

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

The sap cannot 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 trees’ cellulose. Until that cycle begins, there will be no sap.

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

“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.”

Once the season begins, 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.

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 snowpack,” 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.”

Anita Aloisi also predicted the snowpack will help with a fruitful late start.

“With this year, it looks like it’s going to be a good year,” she said. But “we always tell people: ask us when we’re done.”