Judy, Emma and Natalie Casey-Sanger tap the 150-year-old roadside maples by Sanger's sugarhouse in Ingraham March 4. The trees are pockmarked with decades-healed tap holes from the multi-generation maple producers.
Though the North Country is wrapping up a weird winter, local maple syrup producers say it’s business as usual, and the crop so far is clear and sweet.
Lighter syrups come from higher sugar content sap because the sap doesn’t boil so long before it’s ready. Light sap’s preferred for value-added products like maple candies and creamed maple. Richard Atwood, the fifth generation to run his eastern Altona sugarbush, said the sap he’s drawn so far is producing the good stuff.
Over at Parker’s, a 30,000 tap operation down the road from Atwood’s, they’ve already hit 15 percent of their expected seasonal output. The maple season usually lasts from March to mid-April, though larger local producers had early draws that put them ahead of schedule.
With little snow leading up to the maple-making months, those producers and the family at Sanger’s in West Chazy said getting the taps into trees and lines checked has been much easier this year than last, when snowfall was constant.
Kim Sanger said last summer’s tropical storm made a mess of their woods, but with low snow, clean-up was a breeze.
Atwood is usually strapping on snowshoes and handing them out to his woodsmen helpers. This year, a pair of good boots did the trick.
“The low snow was a real blessing,” said Atwood. “It’s the nicest tapping I’ve ever experienced.”
Shannon Moore, who’s helped Atwood in the sugarbush for the past five years, said hauling gear and tripping over vacuum tube lines in snowshoes is exhausting and time-consuming.
The weather’s still unpredictable. Though some producers had a vigorous early run, a cold snap as February changed to March shut down the sap flow, and following a 40-degree Saturday, March 5 saw temperatures well below freezing.
Precipitation is vital this time of year, too.
“A sugar maker wants snow throughout the season,” said Atwood.
The sap collected from the trees is only 2 percent sugar, so a lot of water is needed to keep the flow strong. Snowmelt is where the trees get all that water.
“Nobody knows just what’s going to happen or not going to happen,” said Sanger.
Atwood agreed that sugar-making can be a touch-and-go prospect.
“We’re slaves to the weather,” he said. “People ask how I think the season will go. I say I can tell them on April 15, when it’s all over.”
The sweet spot for maple production is 20-degree weather at night with 40-degree weather during the day. Too cold, and the trees don’t run. Too warm, and the trees might bud early, souring the sap and ending production.
What’s great weather to some is terrible weather to others, said Atwood. This time of year, there’s a clash between his evaluation of the weather and what the nightly weather forecasters have to say. The weather folk are happy to bask in the sun and high temperatures.
“We’re losing our shirts out here,” when temperatures spike too early, said Atwood.
Atwood’s predictions for the year’s take are down from last year, but if the snow keeps up, it should be close.
Many local sugarhouses have been run by the same family for generations. Atwood’s sugarbush was first tapped in 1850, making it possibly the oldest still-running stand in the county. The Sangers have tapped trees in Ingraham since 1925. Parker’s has been boiling since 1889.
Most producers are happy to show off their operations. Call Sanger’s at 846-7385, Parker’s at 493-6761, and Atwood’s at 493-2678.