Time will tell if lack of snow affects sugaring

The Recorder, January 10, 2019, by Richie Davis

Except for this week’s scant snow showers, the lack of a white winter has, so far, left many around the region wondering whether to hold out hope for a sugaring season that will start just a matter of weeks from now.

The last measurable snowfall in Greenfield, in mid-November, dropped 5.7 inches, and then a few days later, another inch, with none of the white stuff falling in December and less than an inch so far this month — most of the cover having melted or been washed away by rains.

With no significant snowfall indicated for next week , there are colder-than-normal temperatures expected in the third and fourth weeks of the month, and for the long-range, according to Recorder meteorologist Tom Bevaqua. That could increase the potential to drive storms far to the south because heavier air on a southern track.

So if all that comes to pass, what’s does that mean for dreams of “sugar on snow,” given that many a sugaring season has been known to begin in February?

“I’ve never found snow makes a lot of difference,” said Montague sugarer Gary Billings. “Some will tell you without a lot of snow you can’t have a decent season. I’ve never found that be totally true. If it comes at the right time, and when the ground’s frozen, snow can insulate it. That can sometime extend your season.”

Last season, Massachusetts producers made 72,000 gallons of syrup — which is considered moderate, although not quite the previous two record-setting years of 84,000 and 77,000 gallons.

Billings, who’s in the midst of building a new Ripley Farm sugarhouse on West Chestnut Hill Road and plans to take a year off this season for health reasons, recalled that the best season ever was in the early 1980s.

“In the best year we every had, we had no snow, but we had the temperatures. The temperature was in the high 40s, low 50s every day, the nights got down to 20 or below, it was clear, the wind stayed out of the west and the sap just really never shut off.”

With or without snow, sugaring season has always been unpredictable, but especially given recent climate abnormalities.

“Nowadays, in the last 20 years or so, you don’t really get distinct separation of the seasons — all of a sudden, in February or early March, it can be up to 70 degrees, or it can be down 10 below, which usually happens for a week or so where you get bitterly cold weather,” Ripley said.

As the 250-member Massachusetts Maple Producers Association gathers for its annual meeting Saturday at Mohawk Trail Regional High School, its coordinator, Winton Pitcoff of Plainfield said, “Obviously, its a weird season for cold, as well. I haven’t had a lot of real deep freezes, even here in the hilltowns, and the frost is not really deep in the ground yet. Still, it’s still pretty early in the winter.”

He explained, “What trees need to charge up and get ready to start having sap run is having weeks of some really solid, cold freezes, not just in the stem and trunk, but also in the ground. That’s where the moisture gets pulled up through the roots into the trees when the sap does start to run.”

Pitcoff, who’s been seeing mud more than snow in the hills — although there is still some snow in shaded areas of the woods — said that having a deeper layer of snow on top of solidly frozen ground helps insulate, modulating the thaw when it arrives.

“If you have some thaws, the ground isn’t going to thaw right away, it’s going to do so gradually, so it extends the (sugaring) season longer. It also helps modulate the temperature in the woods, so when the air temperature starts to warm up, the cold water vapor keeps temperature in the woods cooler, so the trees thaw slower.”

The other advantage of having less snow in the woods now, than is typical, is that it’s easier for sugaring operators to work without snowshoes — setting taps, cleaning pipelines and looking for leaks to get ready for a season that generally begins anytime between mid-February and mid-March.

“I’ve gotten tired of saying it’s a weird winter,” said Pitcoff. “There’s only so much we can do. We’re dependent on trees that were here long before we got here.”

For those who truly know sugaring, the answer is written in three wise words: “Wait and see.”