Buds in the brush along in Tom Sweet's sugarbush reflect buds in his sugar maples' tree tops as the sap turns bitter and ends maple production. Northern New York producers generally had a low-yield year.
Trees and plants are budding around Clinton County. Though that signals the start of lawn care season and return to local parks for recreation, it also signals the early close of sap season for maple producers.
“That one warm week just killed us,” said Alex Sweet, who helps his father, Tom Sweet, in the family’s Chazy sugar bush.
The 1,500 tap operation produced around half their normal crop this year, where the season only lasted around three weeks for the low-lying maple stand.
Warm temperatures cause the sugar maples to bud, turning the sap yellowish and bitter, ending production.
Tom Sweet said the sap was sweeter this year, so it took less sap to boil down syrup than in less sugary sap years. That still wasn’t enough of a silver lining to close the production gap compared to an average season.
He also wasn’t ready for the early start to the season this year. The season started early and strong, but Sweet’s sugar house is a second job, and he didn’t have the time for early preparation. He figures that lost him 10 to 15 percent of the sap crop.
“It’s not like leaving hay in the field for a few more days, and when you come back you’ll have more hay,” said Tom Sweet. “You never regain it at the end.”
It was much the same at Sanger’s Sugar House.
“So far it has been a very disappointing season,” said Kim Sanger. “I think maple producers are the only people who don’t like to see it get too warm too fast.”
They boiled March 21, but hadn’t collected sap since then. Their first boil was March 3, so they only got three weeks of production in. That netted the Sangers about half of their normal.
Helen Thomas, director of the New York State Maple Producers Association, did quite a bit of research Friday morning for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on production in the state.
Clinton County didn’t fare very well this year, she said, with most producers here getting about half their average crops. Franklin and St. Lawrence counties had much less sap running, with about a quarter of the normal syrup production made there.
“It’s safe to say that production has shut down statewide,” said Thomas.
The key to production this year was tapping early. If producers were drawing in February, they had a full season run.
“My dad always used to say, ‘You tap March 15,’” said Thomas. “If I’d waited until then, I’d have nothing. The season was over March 14.”
It depends on how modern their equipment is, too. Traditional bucket-gatherers, which are fairly common in Franklin County, took in as little as 25 percent of their sap goals. St. Lawrence County is seeing much the same numbers.
Western and central New York producers had an alright season, hitting 70 to 80 percent of their target syrup yields. Some even made close to an average crop.
The upper Hudson region had 70 to 80 percent of their crop, and some producers in Warren County were still going late last week.
Another reason that numbers aren’t great this year, said Thomas, is that the ranks of maple producers have increased greatly in the state over the last five years. Along with improvements to technology and better understanding of sugar maple stewardship, expectations are higher than they were.
“We’re all farmers, and we expect this to happen. You always understand that you’re at the mercy of Mother Nature.”
Thomas has heard that Quebec — which produces 80 percent of the overall maple crop — is having a poor year, but not bad enough to affect most consumers. She did warn that if you have a favorite producer, you’ll want to get in touch with them sooner rather than later to reserve your maple products, because individual family operations will be putting out less syrup this year, so supplies won’t last long.