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Sugaring season begins

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March 19, 2007

By CYRUS LEVESQUE

ADDISON COUNTY — After a winter that remained warm well into January, no one knew what to expect for Vermont’s sugaring season. But now that the area has had a sustained cold period followed by a few thaws, those who feared what the unpredictable weather would mean for one of Vermont’s iconic industries can breathe a sigh of relief.

So far, local sugarmakers say, the season is getting started only a few days later than average, and the sap is as sweet as ever.

“The flavor is wonderful,” said Sam Cutting Sr. of Dakin Farms in Ferrisburgh. “Now we need the weather to get straightened out.”

Barbara Rainville of Lincoln said that her family had expected to start earlier than usual until cold weather arrived around the middle of January. The recent sub-zero weather has delayed them a little, but she thinks it will have little or no overall effect.

“For most people, it’s off to a slow start, obviously,” said Rainville, who is secretary/treasurer of the Addison County Sugar Makers’ Association. “I don’t think it will be a bad season once it gets going.”

Such a normal season is almost surprising, considering how the first part of the winter had gone. “In December and January, when we basically had no winter, it made you wonder what was going to happen. But we had quite a winter in February,” said sugarmaker Don Dolliver of Bristol.

After an especially mild December and early January, some thought the season would start significantly earlier than usual. But cold periods and heavy snow since then — including an historic blizzard in February — created a winter that was, at least from the point of view of maple trees, typical.

“It will be almost exactly normal, even after all that stuff that’s gone on,” said Bristol sugarmaker Dave Folino.

He agreed with Cutting that sugarmakers may be slightly behind, but what has been produced so far is of good quality. The sweetness of the sap is “at least average,” Folino said cautiously last week.

Dolliver said that his sugarmaking operation had started boiling sap a little later than usual. His average start date is March 11, and this year he first boiled on March 14.

A few warm days last week provided conditions that were ripe for sugarmaking. In addition the freezes and thaws needed to make sap run, sugarmakers also were helped greatly because the warmth melted snow in the woods, making trees more accessible. “Tapping was difficult with all the snow, but we’re up and running,” Dolliver said.

“That was really a bummer,” said Bristol sugarmaker Alan Mayer of the deep snow in the woods. He had to tap all his trees in snowshoes. Despite the thaw and melting snow early last week, Mayer on Friday feared a return to deep snows because of the forecast for weekend snow.

“The deep snow really throws a curveball,” Mayer said.

Richard Marsh, president of the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association, agreed. “Over the years, I’ve never seen a good sugaring season when we have a lot of snow,” he said. “(This thaw) gives you a chance of getting a more productive season.”

Steve Dow said on Friday that he was concerned about the heavy snow forecast for this weekend, but he was not overly worried. The cold spell predicted “will put us back four or five days, but I’m optimistic,” said Dow, who serves his own maple syrup at Steve’s Park Diner, his Middlebury restaurant. “I think we’ll do fine.”

Dow first boiled sap last Wednesday. He said his production so far is about average for this time of year. The 2007 sugar season may be worse than the last couple years, he said, but those were particularly good years for him.

Mayer said that over the past 30 years of sugaring, he has seen the season narrow. It used to go from mid-February until April, but “the last three years, it’s been from the second or third week of March to the first week of April,” he said.

Marsh said that advances over the past several years in sugaring practices, such as collecting sap in airtight pipes instead of buckets, has made it easier to tap early and not pay a penalty for it. Marsh, who lives in Jeffersonville, tapped his own trees around the middle of January, but the sap wasn’t flowing until the past two weeks. “It’s a little unusual, but with some of the technology and equipment, we’re seeing we can tap earlier and still get syrup,” he said.

For all local sugarmakers, the season is just getting started, and most are leery of making any predictions about what will happen in the coming weeks. Cutting said that the weather can change pretty easily, which can have a big effect on the sugaring season. “I’ve been in this for over 40 years, and you really can’t predict it until it’s near the end,” he said.

Normally, Folino taps from mid-March to mid-April, but he can’t say yet whether the same will hold true. “If it turns 75 degrees in the last few days of March, who knows,” he said.

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