Valley Bounty: Hickory Hill Farm

Published March 16, 2024 in the Daily Hampshire Gazette

The Sweetest Season Comes to Western Mass

It turns out pancakes and hot air balloons have at least one thing in common: they both pair well with maple syrup.

“Flying over the woods is a good way to find maple trees,” offers Paul Sena, owner of both Worthington Ballooning and Hickory Hill Farm. “From 3,000 feet up, you can really tell by the color of the forest, especially in spring and fall.”

When the weather is nice enough, Sena pilots balloons over the Hilltowns, giving sightseers dramatic views of the landscape below. When the weather cools, his focus returns to the farm and making maple syrup. Not one for staying idle, he also helps run Sena Farm Brewery on his family’s land, whose taproom is open Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings at 151 Buffington Hill Road.

Paul Sena, owner of Hickory Hill Maple with his wife Judy Sena in Worthington.

By this point in mid-March, Hickory Hill has been collecting sap and boiling syrup for several weeks. Their sugarbushes (the stands of maple trees they collect from) are spread over four locations totaling about 200 acres. From 5,000 taps they hope to make about 1,500 gallons of syrup in an average year, 2,500 in a good year. Some they sell at the brewery, but most goes to local restaurants and grocery stores like River Valley Co-op.

Maple farming starts with taking care of trees, sculpting a landscape where sugar maples can thrive within a diverse forest.

“Ideally you want two-thirds sugar maples and one-third other species, because a monoculture attracts pests and disease,” explains Sena. ” Nut trees attract squirrels, which do more damage to our equipment than anything else, so we remove them and clear out the understory so hawks and owls can hunt them more easily.”

Paul Sena talks through the process of caring for his sugarbushes. Carol Lollis/Daily Hampshire Gazette photo

Maples rule the highest canopy, their wide leaves catching as much sunlight as possible. The more maples photosynthesize, the higher the concentration of sugar they store in their sap. The sweeter the sap, the more syrup you can make from each gallon you collect, and the less time and energy it takes to turn it into syrup.

Most maple farmers are in the woods year-round, trimming trees and fixing equipment, but much of the work happens in late fall. “Once the leaves are off, we can really see what weather or animal damage we need to fix,” says Sena. “You want to get everything in tip-top shape before it snows and buries everything.”

Once tubing is set to collect sap, he waits for the right moment to finally tap the trees, drilling a new hole (or two, or three) in each and inserting a spout. The spout links the tree to the tubing network, which feeds sap downhill to collection tanks. Vacuum pumps gently increase the downward pull.

Paul Sena stands at one of the holding tanks that is connected to about 500 taps. Carol Lollis/Daily Hampshire Gazette photo

Tap holes stay open for about eight weeks before the tree’s natural healing process slows the flow of sap. It’s up to the farmer each year to choose the right time to tap using weather predictions, observations, local knowledge, and any other information they can get their hands on.

Ideal conditions for sap flow are freezing nights dropping into the 20s, which trigger trees to recall sap into the roots, followed by sunny days in the high 30s that send the sap back towards the branches. Once it gets too warm the tree starts forming buds, which changes how the sap tastes and effectively ends the season.

“Sugaring season seems to be getting earlier each year because of the warming climate, especially in the last 10 years,” says Sena. “Here in Worthington, we used to not tap until mid-February and wouldn’t make much syrup before March 1st. Now we’re tapping in early January sometimes.

Carol Lollis/Daily Hampshire Gazette photo

It’s not just the overall warming that affects maple season, but also how consistent weather patterns are in any year. Strings of days without a freeze can halt sap flow. Meanwhile, spikes into the upper 40s and 50s can trigger early budding. Snow cover can keep the ground and tree cooler, slowing that process, but we’re also seeing less snow than decades ago. Together, these changes tend to suggest earlier and shorter sugaring seasons, but every year is different.

Our changing climate is also shifting the makeup of forests, including sugarbushes, as species migrate to new areas over generations. For long-lived trees, these shifts can take decades or more. Quick-growing plants can transform the landscape much quicker.

“We’re seeing the health of wooded land declining, particularly because of invasive species,” says Sena. “If bittersweet and knotweed move in, they take over and you can’t even walk through the woods.”

Paul Sena tests whether the sap has reached the point of syrup. Carol Lollis/Daily Hampshire Gazette photo.

Even quicker to spread are fungi and insects. “Ash trees face the emerald ash borer, Hemlocks the woolly adelgid, and the Asian longhorn beetle devastates maples,” he says. “If that comes into the area you’re basically out of business. They hit the Worcester area hard about 10 years ago. Luckily, it’s more contained now.”

Maple farmers can’t control the climate and have little control over migrating species. They can do everything possible to keep trees healthy while gathering as much sap as possible from their woods each year. In recent years, improving technology has helped them do both.

“With tubing and vacuum pumps, we get the same amount of sap from two holes in the tree as four spouts with buckets,” says Sena. “That’s less damage to the tree. Once we collect the sap, we bring it to the sugarhouse and run it through filters and a reverse osmosis machine to remove 75% of the water. Then we boil the concentrate to make syrup.”

Carol Lollis/Daily Hampshire Gazette photo.

Removing that water means they also use 75% less wood to fire their evaporator, making for quicker boils and more uniform caramelization. This reduces emissions, labor and costs, and improves the quality of the syrup.

From syrup, some maple producers make other things too, like maple candy or maple cream. Both require further heating and processing. Hickory Hill often makes maple candy around the holidays. They also bottle gift-sized jars of syrup for party or wedding favors. These have been a hit, validating Sena’s opinion that syrup makes the best gift.

“When we fly the hot air balloon, we often land it on other people’s fields,” he says. “We give the landowners a choice of champagne or maple syrup as a thank you gift. Almost always, they take maple syrup.”

Massachusetts Maple Weekend is happening now, March 16 – 17. To learn more about maple farms, sugar shack restaurants, and places where you can see syrup making in action, visit

Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator for CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture).