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Watching tree tops, maple makers hope for cold weather

Vacuum systems like Richard Atwood’s are what make the difference in a tough year like this and keep the sap flowing, said Uihlien Forest Director Mike Farrell.

Vacuum systems like Richard Atwood’s are what make the difference in a tough year like this and keep the sap flowing, said Uihlien Forest Director Mike Farrell. Photo by John Grybos.

— Summer-like weather seems to be marking one of the shortest winters in Clinton County memory, but it's also nipping the sugar season in the bud for local maple makers.

Once the weather cycles from the short-lived freezing nights and warm days that make the sugar maples give up their sap and into consistently warm temperatures, the trees will start budding for their annual leaf growth.

“We've never had a cycle as weird as this one,” said Mike Farrell, director of the Uihlein forest just outside Lake Placid. They're a branch of Cornell research. “So we're not really sure what to expect.”

This weather usually sets in mid-April, and marks the end of useful sap gathering. After the trees sprout their greenery, the sap develop what's called a “buddy” flavor. Not because it's extra-friendly, but because it's bitter and unpleasant.

There is still hope for a freeze before the trees get too used to the sunny days, said Farrell. Long-term forecasts expect the weather to drop again to something a little more seasonal. Usually, it only takes a few days of high temperatures to shut down sap collecting. But the weather's so strange, Farrell said he's not sure that rule will hold.

From what he's heard so far, the big producers with high-pressure vacuum systems on their tubing have done fine. But small operations that rely on buckets or gravity-only tubing systems have been struggling through a tough season.

Michael Parker at Parker Family Maple Farm was very optimistic about his sap yields. The Parker sugar house has already hit its expected capacity for the season, and if they keep collecting sap they'll have an outstanding year, he said.

“Even today, it's 73 degrees out and the sap's running great,” said Parker Monday. “It' doesn't make sense.”

He's not complaining, though. They started out the season with very high-grade syrup, and are making medium-grade right now. He said technology makes all the difference in strange weather. The vacuum collection system at the sugarbush is what keeps the sap flowing in odd conditions.

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