Tough year for trees season means maple producers need more sap to make the same syrup

  • Jeff McNamara, left, and Robbie Williams, right, near the end of their day after making just over 500 gallons of syrup at Mac’s Maple in Plainfield, N.H., Thursday, March 18, 2021. It has been a slow start to the season, but McNamara expects to be boiling every day for the next couple weeks. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News photographs — James M. Patterson

  • Jeff McNamara, monitors the reverse osmosis equipment brought to his family’s Mac’s Maple sugarhouse in Plainfield, N.H., Thursday, March 18, 2021. Already concentrated sap arriving that afternoon from one of two off-site reverse osmosis stations serving a portion of the family’s 30,000 taps from orchards in four towns had a 14% sugar content. McNamara said that without using the process to concentrate the sugar, they would not be able to boil the amount of raw sap they collect fast enough to use it all before it spoils. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — James M. Patterson

  • Jeff McNamara fills a vial used for grading the color of his syrup, and a bottle as a record from each barrel he fills at Mac’s Maple in Plainfield, N.H., Thursday, March 18, 2021. The majority of the syrup he made Thursday was consistently graded golden delicate. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

Valley News Business Writer
Published: 3/20/2021 9:58:00 PM
Modified: 3/20/2021 9:57:57 PM

PLAINFIELD — It’s slow as molasses for the start of the 2021 sugaring season.

Syrup makers across the Upper Valley are reporting that the sap drawn from maple trees in the first weeks of sugaring this year contains a disappointingly low level of sugar, leading to costlier processing and a lower yield in syrup production.

“It’s been low, down around 1.5% when we started,” said Jeff McNamara, owner of Mac’s Maple in Plainfield and one of the Valley’s largest syrup producers. “We usually like to see 2% or higher.”

McNamara has 30,000 taps at his sugarbush and as of late last week had only completed about six boiling sessions out of 25 to 30 he expects in the course of the sugaring season. A low sugar content means more sap is required to produce a gallon of syrup.

“If we get 2% to 2.2%, that’s pretty good sugar,” he said, explaining at that sugar level he can expect to boil 40 gallons of sap to make each gallon of maple syrup. But the ratio quickly increases as the sugar level falls, so that 1.5% requires over 55 gallons to produce a gallon of syrup, McNamara said.

Those extra 15 gallons to yield the same result is a “big difference,” he said.

The sugaring season is only a couple of weeks old, and sugar content in sap is often lower at the beginning of the cycle than at its peak.

But syrup producers say they are seeing even lower sugar content than usual at this point in the cycle, leaving them wondering how productive the 2021 season will be. The past three seasons each have been banner years for the Vermont maple syrup industry, with last year producing a record 2.2 million gallons.

“We didn’t start our first boil until March 11,” said Reid Richardson, of Richardson Family Farm in Hartland, which has 11,600 taps and produces 4,500 gallons of syrup annually. He noted that the farm had all its taps installed by Feb. 5 “and here we are more than a month later and just getting going.”

Richardson attributes the sluggish start to a cold February, “deep snowpack” in the woods and the lack of warm days to trigger maple trees’ hydraulic system that forces the flow of sap.

The sugar level in the sap for the farm’s first 500 gallons was a lower-than-usual 1.6%. “But we’re still in the early part of the season yet,” he said.

Sugar house operators point out that a slow start does not necessarily mean the sugaring season will end on a sour note, however.

“You can make a lot of syrup in two weeks if you have the right weather,” McNamara said.

One likely reason behind this season’s low sugar content in sap is last year’s drought, according to Mark Isselhardt, a maple specialist with the UVM Extension maple program.

Although it’s not unusual for early sap runs to contain less sugar than later in the production cycle, “one thing we’ve seen is that drought in the previous year can affect sweetness and make it a little bit lower. If there was low precipitation in October, November and December, it seems to have an impact,” he said.

And despite technical advances in recent years such as vacuum systems, which boost output by literally sucking sap out of tree trunks, maple syrup production is still subject to myriad factors beyond climate and weather that can affect sugar levels, Isselhardt said.

“There can be a huge amount of variability, even at the micro level,” Isselhardt said, noting that sap sugar content can vary by maturity of the trees, how the maples are managed, and the sugarbush’s elevation, which affects ambient temperature.

“It’s hard to characterize countywide, let alone statewide,” he said, adding that “one person’s average is another person’s high.”

Isselhardt noted that according to the “Rule of 86” — the number 86 divided by the sap’s sugar percentage equals gallons of sap needed for 1 gallon of syrup — a sugar content of 2.5% requires 35 gallons of sap to produce 1 gallon of syrup, while a sugar content of 1.5% requires 58 gallons.

Jeff Luce, whose family owns Sugarbush Farm in Pomfret, said he was seeing sugar content of “1%, maybe even less,” in his first sap draw. “It normally runs about 2%,” he said.

Luce has had only two boils producing 240 gallons of syrup as of late last week out of an expected 15 to 20 boiling days he usually has to produce about 3,000 gallons of syrup from 9,000 trees he taps. He said his farm usually produces the majority of its syrup the last two weeks of March.

“It’s still early. We could still have a good season,” Luce said.

But the window for the right combination of cold nights and warm days is shrinking.

“We’ve got a long way to go and a short time to get there,” he said.

Contact John Lippman at

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