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March 15, 2013

Local maple producers opening their doors

By Richard Whitby
The Daily Star

---- — The sap is running — and so are the region’s maple syrup producers.

After a down year in 2012, they said they’re hoping that this season will provide a sweet recovery. So far, the weather is cooperating.

“If everybody hates the weather, then it’s probably good for us,” said Reed Baker of Baker’s Maple Products in Bainbridge. “Raw, blustery March weather generally is good for production.”

The ideal weather, Baker said, is a series of cold nights and warm days.

“We need it to freeze and thaw,” he said. “You have to have that shift — 25 (degrees) at night, 45 during the day.”

For Rick Newman of Breezie Maple Farms in Roseboom, the weather hasn’t quite reached a nominal point.

“It’s been an all-right season,” he said. But “it hasn’t gotten that warm that many days in a row.”

Newman and Baker are among the many maple producers in New York state who will be marking the season’s peak this weekend and next with open houses, showing visitors their sugar bushes — the trees from which they obtain sap — also sometimes called sap bushes or wood lots.

They’ll also be showing off their sugar shacks (also called sap houses) — where the sap is boiled down into syrup. It takes 20 to 50 gallons of sap to produce a gallon of syrup. It’s a delicate process: too thin, and it can spoil; too thick and it can crystallize.

Baker, who has been in business for 31 years, said that these days he hopes to get about a quart and a half of syrup from each tap, but that 20 years ago, his rule of thumb was 2 quarts.

“We don’t see the long, cold, slow springs like we used to,” he said.

Newman said he expects that each of his trees, some of which are less-productive “soft” maples, such as red and black maples, will yield an average of about a quart.

“I would hope that I’m going to produce over 4,000 gallons” of syrup this year, he said.

That would be an improvement on last year, when an unusually warm March severely depressed output locally and throughout New York and New England. U.S. production was down 32 percent from 2011, according to U.S. Agriculture Department figures, and New York — usually a distant second to Vermont in U.S. syrup production — fell into a tie with Maine for No. 2 on the U.S. list with 360,000 gallons. New York produced 564,000 gallons the year before.

Canada, especially Quebec, is the real heavyweight, accounting for 85 percent of global production. The United States accounts for the remaining 15 percent.

“What happened (last year) is that it got so warm so quick,” Newman said.

Baker explained that the warm weather caused the trees to bud early, which, in turn, caused the trees to start producing amino acids that promote leaf growth but turn the sap bitter.

“You can make all the syrup you want, but nobody can stand it,” he said.

As if the vagaries of late winter and early spring weren’t enough, Newman said the summer that precedes a harvest — when the trees’ leaves produce sugar for the sap that’s tapped in late winter — also affects sap quantities and sugar content.

He uses a vacuum system and hoses to collect sap from his trees.

“With the vacuum, you get about three times the amount of sap you normally get without vacuum,” he said.

Baker, on the other hand, taps trees in and around the town of Bainbridge.

“We have a bunch houses in the middle of one of our sap bushes,” he said. “We lease, rent trees all up and down the valley, wherever there’s a little string of trees, and we drive around with a truck to pick up the sap.”