Tapping in to spring: Early sap sweetens sugarers’ harvest

The Recorder, March 4th, 2016, by Diane Broncaccio.

CONWAY — State Agricultural Commissioner John Lebeaux tapped what was supposed to be the ceremonial “first tree of the season” Friday morning, to kick off the state’s “March is Maple Month” campaign to promote the first agricultural crop of the year.

But in reality, plenty of maples have already been tapped in this unseasonable winter, yielding plenty of maple syrup for March.

“Tuesday was sap-aggedon,” remarked Howard Boyden of Boyden Brothers Maple in Conway. “We made 150 gallons (of maple syrup) out of that one day’s run — and 80 gallons the next day. I’ve produced a half-season’s worth of syrup by the fourth of March.”

“We’re at about one-third,” said Cynthia Cranston, of Cranston’s Christmas Tree Farm in Ashfield, which also produces syrup. “But then, Ashfield is colder than Conway.”

It was a blustery morning at Stonegate Farm, where Dana and Kathy Goodfield live and have produced about 500 gallons of maple syrup each season, and after a bitter night, Dana Goodfield and Commissioner Lebeaux had some hard drilling to get the tap and the ceremonial State of Massachusetts pail in place.

“When we bought this farm in 2000, and Dana saw the line of maple trees, he became really excited,” said Kathy Goodfield. “It’s been a labor of love for him.”

Dana Goodfield said he’d tapped his first trees in Connecticut when he was 12, and made syrup on a sheet-metal stove in the backyard.

When the couple moved to Conway, Dana Goodfield boiled sap with a neighbor who was then using his trees, until Goodfield put together a modern sugarhouse, aided by a Massachusetts Farm Energy grant to pay for reverse-osmosis equipment that reduces the water content of the sap before it’s boiled, saving energy.

“So far, we’ve made 300 gallons,” he said. In recent years, Stonegate Farm has produced about 500 gallons a season, using sap from his own 950 taps, along with sap produced by neighbors. This year, he said, he has located more sources of sap and hopes to produce 700 gallons.

“Many of us started tapping on Presidents Day (Feb. 15),” said Missy Leab of Hancock, president of the Massachusetts Maple Sugarers Association. “Some sugarers have raised as much as a quarter of the crop already.” She remarked that last winter’s cold kept sugarers from tapping until late in the season. “Last year, we didn’t boil until late March into April,” she said.

Syrup in Orange

As local sugarhouse restaurants get ready for visitors in search of pancake breakfasts with fresh-made syrup, Deedee Johnson, of Johnson’s Farm in Orange, said they started tapping around Feb. 15.

“We’ve already done about 150 gallons,” she said. The sixth-generation farm has been making maple syrup for at least 115 years, and Johnson’s Farm Restaurant, at 210 Wheeler Ave., offers pancakes with their syrup year-round.

“Last year, we made 300 gallons — the worst year, ever,” she remarked. “It used to be about 600 gallons per year.”

How much syrup they make this season may depend on next week’s weather, and on how fast it warms up. “Mother Nature is what we get,” she added. “You can’t complain.”

According to Lebeaux, last year’s sugaring season produced about 75,000 gallons of syrup, worth about $4.3 million. “We see strong interest in local produce continuing to grow,” he said. He said the maple sugar farming is also helping to preserve about 15,000 acres of farmland.

State Rep. Paul Schmid, chairman of the state Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture, said Massachusetts farmers “now produce about 10 percent of what we eat. We are sending a lot of dollars out of state,” said Schmid. “This is an opportunity to keep more of these dollars in the state, to produce more of what we eat.”