Sugarmakers are not really sure how the season will turn out this year. The winter has been unseasonably warm, there have been minimal snowfalls and ice hasn’t formed on Lake Erie or the Finger Lakes.
“We are really at the mercy of a bipolar mother nature this year,” said Brian Huber of Old Saratoga Maple in Schuylerville, New York.
To top it off, an unprecedented wind storm blew through Western New York on March 8. Winds raged at 70 and 80 mph. The gusts toppled trees and snapped branches, the shrapnel pulling taps and lines from the trees.
“We’re so depended on the weather. When the crop is ready, we have to harvest,” said Eric Randall of Randall’s Maple Products in Alexander, New York. “When you have a five week harvest window and now you have to spend the next two weeks picking up, it’s something you don’t really account for.”
Fortunately, not all maple producers in New England had to contend with damaging winds, but many are seeing warmer weather. And without a layer of snow to act as a refrigerator and keep temperatures in check, trees are pushing buds early.
“That makes us all a little nervous, but the coming week it’s back into colder temperatures,” said Al Stein of Sweet Dream Maple Farm in Corfu, New York.
Sugarmakers who placed taps early were rewarded with early runs.
“If you were prepared to tap in January, you were able to get a couple of early runs because of the freeze/thaw pattern,” said Stein.
For more than 150 years, the Randall family has produced maple products. This season is the earliest the family has placed tapped or boiled sap.
“We went out to tap before February 1 and boiled on February 8,” Randall said.
For producers who did not tap early, it’s been a frustrating process. “The extreme warm for extended periods of time shut the trees down, and then when we get the cold nights and warm days they only last a couple days and then back to either extreme heat or extreme cold,” Huber said.
In some parts of Vermont and New Hampshire, sugarmakers report nearly a foot of snow in the woods with more on the way. Maple producers there expect a stop-start-scenario for the next few weeks, but anticipate a decent season overall. With about one-third of the annual yield collected thus far, the next few weeks will be telling.
Despite the unpredictable weather patterns and little snow fall, Stein says that soil moisture levels are okay. “There’s still a lot we don’t know about how trees react to environmental issues and how valuable soil moisture levels are to the process, but even without snow the soil is holding moisture,” he said.
That makes it difficult to predict how things will go this year. It’s hard to tell until the season is over.
“No two years are the same. As a research scientist by trade and spent my life trying to figure out how weather conditions impact maple runs. Just when you think you have it figured out, you realize that you don’t,” Randall said.
Read more: The Story of Old Saratoga Maple