ADDISON COUNTY — Spring is sprung!
While warm weather this weekend may have delighted most county residents, temperatures that pushed 60 degrees in parts of the region caused a bit of consternation from local sugarmakers, many of whom worried the warm spell could signal the end to a brief maple sugaring season this year.
The plink plink plink of sap hitting the buckets quieted down at lower elevations in the Champlain Valley, where warm nights slowed down the production of maple syrup at Ledge Haven Farm in Orwell. There, farmer and sugarmaker Tom Audet said a season that got off to an early start this year may be lined up for a premature end, too.
Audet runs his sugaring operation with his brother, Mike, and a few other family members. The Audets were boiling their first round of sap just a day after Town Meeting Day — far ahead of schedule, Audet said.
The early season started off with a bang, and by the end of the week the brothers had produced nearly 600 gallons of syrup.
But now, the weather isn’t cooperating. Warm weather last week meant the flow of sap dwindled to a trickle.
“We just have not had the freezing nights,” Audet said. Even when temperatures last week dipped below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, the cold weather didn’t stay around long enough to encourage sap to flow during the days.
This year, in addition to the Audets’ own 4,000 taps, Ledge Haven Farm is buying sap from the owner of a sugarbush in Benson.
“Thank God for the sap from Benson,” Audet said. The temperature and climate has been just different enough in that neck of the woods that sap from Benson has continued to fuel the Audets’ sugarhouse, and with the additional sap the Audets think they’ll produce roughly as much syrup as they did last year — 1,200 or 1,300 gallons.
“We’ve got our fingers crossed for the middle of (this) week,” Audet said, “but we think our buckets are dried up.”
UP THE MOUNTAIN
The news is better from higher elevations. Sugarmakers in Starksboro reported that there was still several feet of snow on the ground heading into the tail end of last week, the they expressed confidence that the season would soldier on after the warm spell this weekend.
“We feel pretty good,” said Dave Folino, the co-owner of Hillsboro Sugarworks in Starksboro.
Folino pointed out that last year was an exceptional year for many sugarmakers: With conditions just right, Hillsboro Sugarworks produced more than 7,000 gallons of syrup. In an average year, the operation might boil 5,000 or 6,000 gallons.
Weather aside, sugarmakers report the maple syrup crop this year is flavorful.
“So far the grade has been really good,” Folino said. “Really light, very nice, kind of delicate.”
Another Starksboro sugarmaker, Bill Heffernan, has noticed similar qualities in his syrup. Heffernan has boiled down 1,000 gallons of syrup so far, and 90 percent of it has been the lightest, or “fancy,” grade of syrup. This year’s sugar content is higher, and the quality, Heffernan said, is excellent.
But Folino has noticed one curiosity: This year, he’s seeing more “sugar sand” than he’s ever seen in his 32 years of sugarmaking.
Sugar sand is made up of the minerals and nutrients that precipitate out as excess water in maple sap is boiled away. Sugarmakers filter their syrup to remove the sand, which would appear cloudy if unfiltered.
A little always crops up, but this year is different, Folino said.
“It’s like we’re in the Sahara Desert,” he said.
Folino predicted that the weather would straighten out after the weekend, and thought sugarmakers at higher elevations in Lincoln, Ripton and Starksboro might have a few weeks yet of sugaring ahead.
Peter Purinton, who sugars just over the Starksboro town line in Huntington, said much the same thing.
“It’s pretty early yet,” Purinton said. “You’re asking me, ‘How tall will the corn grow this year?’”
Just as it is too soon to say how the weather will affect the rest of the season, Folino and other sugarmakers also said it’s hard to know where prices for syrup will end up this year. While Vermont, the biggest maple-producing state in the country, has some impact on syrup prices, the biggest producing region by far is Quebec.
“It’s too early to say,” Folino said.
Reporter Kathryn Flagg is at email@example.com.