Sugaring gets a late start in Vermont due to cold weather

By Emily Hogan

Courtesy Photo
Sugar maple trees, such as those pictured here, can be tapped for sap during certain weeks in spring.

Sugaring, the process of creating maple syrup, started around three weeks later this year than is typical for the industry. As a result, there has been a 50–70% drop in maple syrup production throughout Vermont and southern Canada. 

“This year, we didn’t collect any sap until the third week of March because it was really cold,” said Donald Gale, owner-operator of Twin Maple Sugarworks. 

The sugaring season is usually only about three weeks long, and sugarers usually collect an average of 7,000 to 9,000 gallons of maple syrup per day. The starting date of sap collection depends heavily on temperature. 

“It all has to be done early in the spring or late winter when the sap is at its richest sugar, because as the season progresses later into spring, the trees are starting to grow and they’re demanding a different kind of solution from their stored reserves,” said John Buck, principal operator of Buck Family Maple Farm. 

As the sugar content drops out of the syrup, tapping the tree will yield more of a mineral-rich water solution that cannot be boiled to produce maple syrup.The flow of sap out of the tree depends on the right combination of colder nights, warmer days and a certain amount of pressure in the atmosphere. 

Due to cold winter conditions, the sugar content was lower in this year than previous years, which made processing the sap less efficient. In a typical year, one gallon of maple syrup requires about 40 to 45 gallons of sap. This year, it required closer to 65 gallons.  

Gale stated that sugaring also started late in 2016. In that year, the production extended almost until May due to ideal weather conditions. This year, however, the sugaring window remained short. 

Since the maple industry is heavily seasonal, some maple producers like Murray Thompson of Thompson Farm have decided to run other wintertime operations. 

“Now I do some other things like Christmas trees and pumpkins and raspberries, and I cut a lot of hay and sell it,” Thompson said.

Buck uses leftover maple syrup from the previous spring to put in glass jars and sell as Christmas presents during the holiday season as his alternative source of revenue. 

Once the maple syrup has been processed, many maple producers sell their products all over the country. 

“Some of my best customers are actually in Alaska, the West Coast, Colorado,” Gale said. 

However, there are also some producers who prefer to sell locally. 

“We sell [maple syrup] right here throughout the year to customers that I have,” Gale said. He typically cans some of the maple syrup each year, allowing him to decide later on what to do with it.  While he mentioned that selling syrup in bulk is not his intention, sometimes there is too much syrup left at the end of the season so he connects with a wholesaler to get rid of the extra drums. 

“It’s always good to make enough syrup so that you don’t have to turn customers away,” Gale said. 

 Similarly, much of the maple syrup produced at Buck Family Maple Farm is sold in organic farmers markets throughout Vermont, as well as to wholesalers who use that maple syrup to produce jugs sold in stores. 

Buck says that many maple producers feel they were destined to work in the maple industry given familial connections and childhood memories associated with making maple syrup. While working in the maple industry is “not a get-rich-quick scheme by any means,” as Buck says, making maple products has provided many of these maple producers opportunities to connect with their families as well as an outlet to continue working with what they love. “It’s a labor of love,” Buck said.