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Sugaring season starts well: cold temps but the taps are flowing

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By CYRUS LEVESQUE

ADDISON COUNTY — Sugaring season has begun, and while it’s never easy to predict how the season will go, some Addison County sugarmakers say they expect a good season.

“We’re off to a good start,” said Maurice Rheaume of his own sugarmaking operation. “Most everybody’s pretty optimistic.”

The Middlebury resident is president of the Addison County Sugarmakers Association. He said that he began boiling sap on March 8, five days earlier than last year. Temperatures this spring have been relatively cold, which Rheaume said is ideal for sugaring.

“Cold is always better than warm. The weather is favorable,” he said. On Tuesday, Rheaume was looking forward to the ice and freezing rain forecasted for that night, and he probably wasn’t disappointed.

Don Dolliver of Starksboro agreed. “I think it’s a favorable sign that we keep getting these storms,” he said. He first boiled sap on March 8, but declined to predict how long the season would last. “It takes a few 70-degree days in a row, and that’s it.”

Modern sugarmaking operations usually use pipes running from tree to tree to collect sap. That’s easier than the traditional method of hanging buckets on each tree in some ways, but it requires maintenance when a pipe gets weighted down by ice or pulled down under a fallen branch or tree.

But according to Bill Scott of Vergennes, the former forestry teacher at the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center and a sugarmaker himself, that hasn’t been much of a problem, despite the frequent icy weather this year.

A serious ice storm 10 years ago killed many trees and felled many branches. “They looked like a helicopter cut them off in ’98,” Scott said. The trees that were at greatest risk of falling down in 1998 fell then, and trees killed by the storm have fallen in the intervening years, so Scott said that his tubing has remained relatively unscathed this year.

HIGHER FUEL COSTS

There are a few problems facing sugarmakers for this season. The rising cost of fuel is increasing the cost of almost everything, and making maple sugar is no exception. “It’s definitely going to impact (prices),” Rheaume said. However, according to Rheaume, many sugarmakers buy their fuel soon after the previous season, so they would have paid lower prices than if they were buying fuel now.

According to Scott, the use of reverse osmosis machines, which take some water out of the sap before it is boiled, can help a great deal with fuel costs. “It’s revolutionizing the sugaring industry,” Scott said.

The energy-intensive part of sugarmaking is boiling massive amounts of sap. It takes about 40 gallons of sap from a sugar maple tree to make one gallon of syrup. Traditionally that is done entirely by boiling, but reverse osmosis machines, first used for maple syrup in the 1970s, force sap through a membrane at high pressure to separate some of the water out from the sugar.

Sap is about 2 percent sugar naturally, and is considered syrup at 70 percent sugar. Scott gets his sap to about 8 percent sugar through reverse osmosis before boiling. He said that some people concentrate their sap as high as 24 percent through multiple reverse osmosis machines, which he described as “boiling without having to boil.”

It’s impossible to predict exactly how long the sugaring season will last, and it will probably vary depending on location. Steve Dow of Middlebury estimated that in and around Middlebury the season could last for another two weeks, but in the Lincoln area and sugarbushes at higher elevations, it may last another month or so.

Dow said that he began boiling sap around the beginning of March, probably a little earlier than last year. He also said that the cold weather this winter has helped. “We had that cold spell back in (early March) that slowed things down … it’s all up to Mother Nature.”

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