Slow start to syrup season; maple producers hold out hope

SHELBURNE — By this time most years, Chip Hager would have boiled a dozen batches of maple sap down to syrup.

This is not most years.

“We’ve only boiled twice this year,” Hager said Saturday. “Usually, we’d start on the first of March, and boil every other day.”

The thick snow pack and frigid temperatures have made for a late start to sugaring season this year.

“I don’t think we’ve had a season yet,” Hager said. “I’m hoping we get a little bit of spring between winter and summer. Once it gets to a certain point, though, it’s just going to turn warm, like it or not.”

Maple sap runs best when it gets below freezing overnight and hits the mid-40s during the day.

“We started March 17 this year,” Hager continued. “It’s going on the latest we’ve ever started. The winter has really held on.”

Although last year got off to a late start, with Hager running his first boil on March 13, he said it finished strong.

The late start and small yields haven’t hurt demand. In fact, Hager said, a bad sugaring season usually translates to good sales.

“When we’re having a poor season and word gets out, it makes the demand rise,” Hager said.

He certainly had no problem selling the sweet stuff Saturday. By mid-afternoon, Hager’s Farm Market’s Mohawk Trail parking lot was full, with cars lined up along the roadside to get Hager’s famous fried dough, topped with maple cream.

The snow has made it hard for many maple producers to even tap some of their trees.

“The snow’s been so deep, we can only get to some of the trees on snowshoes, and that’s no fun,” said Warren Facey, of Bree-Z-Knoll Farm in Leyden

“I haven’t even gotten my pan lit yet,” Facey said. “It’s been a terribly slow season.”

Jim Graves of Shelburne squirreled away 800 gallons of maple sap so he’d have enough to boil for Saturday’s Maple Day event.

“Last year, this week was my first boil,” Graves said. “This year, I started (last) Monday and made 13 gallons of syrup.”

Graves has about 600 taps, though he used to have many more. Past president of the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association, Graves used to set out 3,200 or more taps and produce 800 gallons of syrup each year. A truck accident a few years back left him badly injured, and he decided to step it back a notch.

Though his sugarhouse is tucked away in the hills of Shelburne, Graves said people used to come from Boston and beyond for his family’s syrup. Many of them, he said, would stick around, and his mother would end up feeding them.