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Maple Runs Early, Steady

  • As Jason Flint, of Sharon, Vt., amusedly looks on, Dustin Potter feeds the fire while boiling sap in his family's sugarhouse in Sharon, Vt., on March 31, 2016. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Danny Potter checks the consistency of syrup while boiling sap at his family's sugarhouse in Sharon, Vt., on March 31, 2016. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Danny Potter walks through his family's sugarhouse while sugaring with family and neighbors in Sharon, Vt. Potter says that while the season has picked up for their family in the past few weeks, it's not necessarily a banner year for sap. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 3/31/2016 11:56:39 PM
Modified: 4/1/2016 11:51:21 AM

Lebanon — After more than 30 years in the business, James Lukash is well drilled in the yearly cycles of maple sugaring. When the daytime temperatures reach above freezing and nighttime temps dip below, the Cornish farmer knows his taps will be flowing.

But this year wasn’t normal for many of the northeast’s maple farmers. A temperate winter, early spring temps and less snow on the ground meant Lukash and his colleagues weren’t sure what to expect in 2016.

“They have told us that we need deep snow, lots of frost, cold nights, warm days,” Lukash said. “You can throw every bit of information out the window.”

That’s because Lukash’s Hillside Sugar Bush Farm already has seen a record season, and it’s still boiling. During an average year at Hillside, Lukash said, he hopes to produce between 200 and 250 gallons of syrup. As of Thursday, he’s at 304 gallons.

“We have well surpassed anything that we have ever made before,” he said.

Throughout the Upper Valley, farmers that took advantage of early sap runs and the newest technology are reporting similar harvests, but those using more traditional methods weren’t as lucky.

“If you use a vacuum pump to essentially pull the sap through the lines through the trees, people did pretty well,” said Michael Doten, a Pomfret maple farmer.

Unlike larger farms, Doten uses gravity to collect his sap. He described this year’s season as “poor.”

“We’re about a little over half of (what’s) normal this year,” Doten said.

And although he believes his sugar bush’s south-facing field contributed to the sub-par season, its lack of a vacuum pump also could be to blame.

Like Doten, David Phillips said his farm’s “OK year” partially could be attributed to his collecting in buckets. Phillips, who has been sugaring on his deceased father’s Thetford property for years, considers the operation “too big to be a hobby and too small to be a business.”

“It’s been a weird year,” Phillips said. “(The sap) just hasn’t been running well.”

The sap continues to run and is consistent, he said, but not at the same quantity seen by his pump-owning friends.

Lebanon farmer Bruce Townsend said he had an “excellent season” using a combination of vacuum and gravity lines.

“I had hoped to make 450 gallons,” the seventh-generation farmer said. “We would have if we hadn’t run out of fuel.”

Of the 1,600 taps he ran this year, Townsend said, about 400 weren’t on the vacuum pump and ran dry about a week earlier.

“Vacuum systems are always going to out perform gravity systems,” said Mark Isselhardt, an extension maple specialist with the University of Vermont.

A vacuum helps regulate the pressure differences in maple trees, he said. When a freeze occurs, trees suck in moisture, which produces a sap run when there’s a thaw. But a vacuum works so the sap continues to flow, even if the freeze/thaw cycle stops for a few days.

Research done through the extension showed farmers in 2004 who used pumps collected anywhere between 50 and 200 percent more sap using a vacuum without affecting taste or sugar content.

Vacuums also keep tubes clear, so they don’t freeze overnight, Lukash said, while gravity tubes often will freeze and require hours of sunlight before running again each morning.

“By keeping the pipes empty, we’re giving ourselves another three or four hours a day of actual sap run,” he said.

Maple farmers were aided by the winter weather, said David Lutz, an ecologist at Dartmouth College. Earlier warmer temperatures led to an earlier maple season, Lutz said, which allowed farmers more time to tap and collect.

“I think that the general consensus is that everybody is tapped and the season started several weeks earlier than before,” said Lutz, who collaborates with colleagues collecting maple data from Virginia to Quebec.

The maple started to run about five weeks early at Dartmouth, Lutz said, and large sap runs followed in February, about 3½ weeks early. Farmers who weren’t used to tapping their trees early — or those who were too busy to do so — might have missed out on some of the sap, he said.

“This year was great,” Lutz said of Dartmouth’s collection. “We got a lot of sap even though we don’t use vacuums.”

South Woodstock resident and farmer Mary McCuaig said she was ready for this year’s maple season. She has a vacuum system in place and started to tap early.

“We have had a very good season,” McCuaig said, and “the quality of the syrup has also been excellent.”

McCuaig taps on her Top Acres Farm and neighbors’ property using a combination vacuum tubing and buckets close to the sugar house. She hopes to make roughly 1,500 gallons during a normal year, but managed to increase production by about one-third this season.

Although her harvest was good, McCuaig said, she had no advanced indication it would be that way, and there were moments this year when she wasn’t sure whether the taps would stop early.

“You should never try to predict the maple season,” she said.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.




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