This Warm Weather is Sweet: Sap Flowing Early for Some This Sugaring Season
The Recorder, February 2nd, 2016, by Richie Davis
The calendar had barely flipped to February, but Bill and Norma Coli were already seeing a steady drip of sap, as temperatures Monday broke 50 degrees.
But Coli, who has been maple sugaring with his wife on Warner Hill for 40 years, said he’s not too worried about the season peaking early.
“The best season we ever had, we had no snow on the ground at all,” said Coli. “We had a phenomenal yield because the frost went way down into the ground, and we had perfect weather. The key really is the weather during the sugaring season. The big question is, ‘What is the sugaring season?”
The season in Charlemont usually begins the middle to the end of February, he said. That best season about 15 years ago, after tapping in January and making five drums of syrup in February, led into a “normal March,” to produce a record 21 or so drums.
The sap in Charlemont is running now, although this first run of the season could end when temperatures drop again, before restarting again when warm temperatures prevail.
“When you have pipeline, you can tap pretty much any time,” said Coli, who has about 4,200 taps set and typically produces 600 to 800 gallons of syrup, although he has made as much as 1,000 gallons. Of course, if sap runs too early its sugar content will be too low because its starch hasn’t yet been converted to sugar, he said.
The bottom line among sugarers, Coli says, is that variability is not unusual. Typically, the season begins in late February or early March, depending not only on weather conditions but also on location, what direction the trees are facing, wind conditions and ground temperatures affected by snow pack insulation. The length of daylight is also a critical factor, along with the alternation between freezing nights and warm days.
Yet the long-term trend is consistent with climate change, says Coli, who recalls neighbor Roy Hicks, who was in his 80s when the Colis moved to town in 1975, telling them that when he had been a boy, in the late 1800s, sugaring time rarely came before the first of April, and then it gradually moved to early March.
“Most years, we’ve had to start before the first of March,” he said, and there have been times when the sap was “frozen solid” in March, with some good runs lasting into April. Two seasons ago, he remembers making syrup until April 21, although for their first 35 seasons at Blue Heron Farm, they never saw the sap run as late as April.
“I’m hoping this year that we get three or four days like this, then another two or three days of warmer weather, and then a normal March,” says Coli.
In Shelburne, Norm Davenport of Davenport Maple Farm said, “Everything about this winter is unusual,” including the relative lack of snowfall. He hasn’t started tapping trees yet, and said the season typically doesn’t get under way at his farm until around March 15.
Yet there some sugar producers and hobbyists “are chomping at the bit to get tapping,” said Tom McCrumm of Southface Farm in Ashfield. “After another cold spell I think everybody will jump on it.”
Still, in 30 years in the town’s Spruce Corner section, McCrumm has never started tapping before Feb. 20, and the person he’s leasing his sugar maples to this year hasn’t begun setting taps yet. He calls the current weather situation “really unusual,” but agrees with many maple producers that the absence of snow on the ground should have no effect on sap production.
“One of the old wives’ tales was you need deep snow to have a good sugaring season, but 1980 or ’81 was a rare, open winter and the best production season in decades. So, so much for that theory,” he said.
A lot of producers are able to tap earlier because of changes in equipment and technique, with or without the effects of global warming, said McCrumm. Check valves on taps allow flow only out of the tree and prevent sap from flowing back into the tree to introduce bacteria, which can force tap holes to close up, for example, and use of round-the-clock vacuum pumps draw sap when conditions are right and allow holes to remain open, without sap running back into the tree.
Some producers farther down the Pioneer Valley, and some farther east are trying to take advantage of the early warm-up, said Winton Pitcoff, Massachusetts Maple Producers Association coordinator. “Here, there are more holdouts, because producers have more experience with crazy weather.”
But, he added, the snowless winter has also made it easier than ever to work out in the woods, setting taps or checking pipeline.
Checking pipeline is exactly where Albert “Chip” Hager is now with his maple production in Colrain. But he’s not ready to start collecting sap.
“Usually, when you have an open winter (with little snow) the season starts earlier, because the ground warms up,” he says. “But it’s all a matter of getting the right conditions at the right time.”
On the Web: massmaple.org
You can reach Richie Davis at 413-772-0261, Ext. 269