Maple sugaring season is underway (sort of)

The calendar says spring is here. Most of us are looking ahead with enthusiasm and anticipation to warmer weather. Days are getting longer. And every time I get to feel the radiant warmth of the sun beaming down from a glacial blue sky with just a hint of clouds, it sure feels good!

A lot of us think of early spring as mud season. I prefer to think of it as maple season -?maple syrup season, that is, a spectacular time of transition. I’ve learned to look beyond the ice, grit, slush, and moosh that lies beneath my feet, to the buckets hanging on the aging sugar maples that line the roadside and the gentle mist that rises from the snow melting in the field behind; and to the blue sap lines in the forest beyond, which stands majestically bathed in sunshine and shadow, as clouds slowly lumber across the sky above.

We’ve all grown weary of the relentless cold, ice and snow. Almost all of the region’s maple syrup producers finished tapping their trees in February, but as I sit down to write this article during the last weekend in March, many, including almost all of those with sugarbushes (stands of tapped maple trees) at higher elevations, have still not made any syrup. Some still have sap lines buried under the snow.

At lower elevations, sap has run a little. But when it stops, the anticipation begins again, as syrup producers anxiously wait for empty sap lines to flow or frozen lines to thaw.

Whether you’re tapping one sugar maple or 25,000, the basic elements of gathering and producing maple syrup are the same as they have been for centuries. To make pure maple syrup, you have to put a hole in a tree, collect the sap from that hole and boil it down to the proper consistency.

But sugaring is a weather-related industry. Production hinges on the freezing nights and daytime thaws that cause sap to run. Optimum production occurs when nighttime temperatures fall into the mid-20s and daytime temperatures range in the low 40s, preferably with sunny skies, allowing the season to gradually transition from winter to spring. More freeze-thaw days translates to more sap runs, which in turn translates to more syrup being produced.

Every year is different. And when asked about whether or not the late start will affect the overall maple season, Extension Associate Michael Farrell, regional maple specialist and director of Cornell’s Uihlein Forest in Lake Placid, said, “Time will tell. Generally we would have been making syrup by now. Hopefully, we will have several weeks of good sap collecting weather in April.” Fortunately, at the time of this writing, the weather forecast for the very near future looks near-perfect! It would appear that any day now, the sugaring season will begin in earnest. And timing will not affect the quality of syrup produced.

While this may have been one of the longest, coldest, and hardest winters that any of us can remember, just two years ago the weather in March was well above normal. In fact, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said March of 2012 was the warmest on record for all of the lower 48 states (and the government has been keeping records since 1895). Daytime high temperatures in our region ranged from the high 60s through the low 80s for weeks, shattering previous records on a nearly daily basis. Nighttime low temperatures remained where maple syrup producers would’ve liked daytime highs to have been.

And therein lies the conundrum. The perception among many New York and New England maple syrup producers is that the region now generally receives considerably more warm weather during the tapping season than it once did. Perhaps even too much! There is a general feeling that sap flows may not be as heavy in late winter and early spring as they once were, that they are certainly less consistent, that spring often comes earlier, and that winters are, by and large, less severe.

During the past decade, scientists at Cornell University, at the University of Vermont’s Proctor Maple Research Center, and elsewhere, have been looking closely at changes in the onset and duration of the maple sugaring season. A study conducted by researchers at Proctor Maple Research Center confirmed that our average maple syrup season, the traditional short season of daily freeze and thaw cycles, has gotten about three days, or 8 to 10 percent shorter than it was in the 1940s. And in testimony before Congress in 2007, Proctor Center director Timothy Perkins said the Vermont sugaring season now begins about eight days earlier and ends about 11 days earlier than it did 40 years ago.

A Cornell study, which was funded by the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station and NOAA, and completed in 2010, looked at the relationship between sap flow and temperature at thousands of locations from North Carolina to Quebec and as far west as Minnesota. Those researchers also determined that peak starting dates for tapping maples in the Northeast are now about a week earlier than in 1970. By scaling down global climate computer models to regional scales in order to project localized daily temperatures into the year 2100, the Cornell study concluded as well that in northern regions like ours, the overall number of sap flow days probably won’t change much. The season, however, will continue to shift; becoming earlier and earlier over time. The bottom line -?more and more, producers are tapping earlier and earlier than their ancestors did.

The sun is quite a bit warmer this time of the year than it is in late February or early March. Anyone who produces an agricultural (or horticultural) crop knows the weather is beyond their control. But, because snow cover generates radiational cooling at night, this past weekend’s additional heavy snowfall could prove advantageous, should daytime temperatures range a bit warmer than producers would like to see. A gradual warm-up is best for maple sugar production, and with a bit of luck, nights will remain frosty and days warm for at least a few more weeks – perfect weather for making maple syrup.

One thing is for certain: Once sap starts running, it won’t be long until the earth is in bloom again.