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Late Start for Maple Sugarmakers; Cold Spell Crimps Sap Flow

  • Reid Richardson of the Richardson Family Farm, surveys the network of sap lines crisscrossing the farm's sugarbush in Hartland Vt., on Sunday, March 9, 2014. The late cold snap has kept the lines frozen and delayed syrup production. (Rob Strong photograph)

    Reid Richardson of the Richardson Family Farm, surveys the network of sap lines crisscrossing the farm's sugarbush in Hartland Vt., on Sunday, March 9, 2014. The late cold snap has kept the lines frozen and delayed syrup production. (Rob Strong photograph)

  • Reid Richardson of the Richardson Family Farm, surveys the network of sap lines crisscrossing the farm's sugarbush in Hartland Vt., on Sunday, March 9, 2014. The late cold snap has kept the lines frozen and delayed syrup production. (Rob Strong photograph)

    Reid Richardson of the Richardson Family Farm, surveys the network of sap lines crisscrossing the farm's sugarbush in Hartland Vt., on Sunday, March 9, 2014. The late cold snap has kept the lines frozen and delayed syrup production. (Rob Strong photograph)

  • Reid Richardson of the Richardson Family Farm, surveys the network of sap lines crisscrossing the farm's sugarbush in Hartland Vt., on Sunday, March 9, 2014. The late cold snap has kept the lines frozen and delayed syrup production. (Rob Strong photograph)
  • Reid Richardson of the Richardson Family Farm, surveys the network of sap lines crisscrossing the farm's sugarbush in Hartland Vt., on Sunday, March 9, 2014. The late cold snap has kept the lines frozen and delayed syrup production. (Rob Strong photograph)

Hartland — Most area sugarmakers have yet to begin boiling sap into syrup, but it’s too early to say what the delayed start and lingering cold will mean for production this season.

“If it comes off within the next week or so we can still have a really good season,” said Henry Marckres of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture. “In two to three weeks you can produce an awful lot of syrup.”

This year’s late start comes on the heels of a bumper crop last year when the state produced 1.4 million gallons, compared with a more typical yield of 500,000, said Marckres.

He credits the growth in the industry to more taps and the steady adoption of vacuum technology, which has increased the amount of sap collected per tap.

The weather is one thing technology can’t yet control, however.

“We’ll have to wait and see, I guess,” said Marckres.

Reid Richardson began boiling last year on March 9. A year later, the car thermometer read 27 degrees on Sunday, about five degrees shy of the daytime temperature necessary to let sap flow through the blue plastic lines running from his 8,000 taps into waiting tanks beside his family’s sugarhouse.

“We were very pleased with our production last year,” said Richardson, whose family has been making syrup in Hartland for more than 100 years. In 2013, they made 4,200 gallons, most of which they sold wholesale to Bascom Maple Syrup in Alstead, N.H. With new squeeze bottles and a soon-to-be unveiled website, richardsonmaple.com, Richardson hopes to expand the retail side of the business, he said.

Maple syrup sales represent a “substantial” portion of the Richardson Family Farm’s annual income, he added. The family also ships milk from their 60 Jersey cows to Cabot Creamery and sells split-rail fencing to customers such as Billings Farm in Woodstock.

Richardson said he isn’t worried about the delayed start to this year’s sugaring season, yet.

“We’re hoping for similar results,” he said.

To reach last year’s high bar, Richardson will need four or five days of “perfect weather,” with temperatures above freezing, he said.

Ideal conditions for high volume sap runs are nighttime temperatures in the 20s combined with daytime climbs into the 40s, said Betty Messer formerly of Sunday Mountain Maple Farm in Orford.

After 50 years in the business, she and her husband Paul have retired from sugaring this year to do some traveling, she said.

The neighbors who have taken over their 3,000 taps are “just waiting for that break in the weather,” she added.

Don Curtis, of Little Stream Sugarworks, with a sugarhouse in West Lebanon and a sugarbush in Enfield, said his average start date is March 10. He said he was hopeful that he would be boiling by next week.

“It depends which weather you listen to,” he said.

Tig Tillinghast who owns active sugarbushes in both Thetford and Strafford did not have as much success last year as most. In the best of times, he makes 1,000 gallons from his 2,200 taps, he said, but last year he made just 425.

Sugarmakers must hedge their bets because predicting maple production from year to year is so difficult; with such slim margins, Tillinghast said.

He approaches the challenge by purchasing most of the syrup he sells and exporting it to foreign markets for specialty products, he said.

For Tillinghast, part of the purpose of sugaring is to create an excuse to acquire and protect land and to spend time outside.

“There’s an irrationality about producing syrup,” he said.

Tillinghast described sugaring as a “compulsion,” while Richardson described it as an addiction.

“Once you start, you can’t stop,” he said.

That certainly seems to be true for his relatives. Once the sap begins to flow, Richardson’s father, Gordon, now 73, will spend his days lending a hand in the sugarhouse, Richardson said.

“It’s an exciting time of year for those of us that get jazzed up about maple sugaring,” he said.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.