With the 2011 maple syrup season coming to an end, early indications are predicting another successful season. Something producers have been forced to worry about in recent years.
“As long as we don’t see too much warm weather, we’re optimistic,” said Eric Ellis, manager of Maine Maple Products.
Temperatures that fall below freezing at night and rise to around 40 degrees during the day are ideal conditions for the best sap runs. But ever-changing weather patterns, as a result of a warming climate, have limited maple syrup production in recent seasons.
“Climate change has led to an unpredictability as to when seasons are going to occur and that makes it difficult for maple producers,” said Kathy Hopkins, University of Maine Cooperative Extension Educator.
In March when spring returns to Maine, there is mud season. And with the warmer daytime temperatures and cool nights, the sap begins to rise in the maple trees. This is a unique situation that occurs in the northern region of the United States where large stands of maple trees grow. It is a long-standing New England tradition to tap the trees and siphon off the sap to produce maple syrup.
It is a tasty reward after surviving a long, cold, New England winter.
On Maine Maple Sunday, the last Sunday in March, maple sugar houses all over the state open their doors to the public to demonstrate the boiling of the sap to make syrup. They offer a wide variety of maple treats to sample and provide a lot of fun activities for the children.
My wife and I jumped into the car on a crisp, bright spring day and headed to the hills of Newfield, Maine, for our very first Maple Sunday.
It was a blast! On our way north past Mousam Lake we discovered the Irish Maple Sugar House, with steam coming out of the shack roof, families lined up for free ice cream with syrup, shiny antique tractors for the children to sit on, and about five big black Labrador retrievers romping through the muddy yard. There was a big, rugged, bearded guy in a plaid flannel shirt explaining the syrup-making process. Important fact: It requires 40 gallons of sap to make one quart of that golden, amber, sweet stuff.
Sugary sweet or somewhat disappointing?
Chat about how the season went at the annual Maple Syrup Producers Hall of Fame luncheon is known to sway either way, depending on typically finicky Mother Nature. Weather is a major determinant leading to a maple sap season's success or lack thereof.
Talk at this year's event, which took place Thursday at Mary Yoder's Restaurant in Middlefield, was filled with sparkling, sugary reviews.
Sweeteners and diabetes usually don't mix, but maybe one day one sweet-tasting substance, maple syrup, will have an important link to fighting the disease if a Rhode Island researcher's work continues along its promising path.
No, type-2 diabetics should not gulp syrup by the gallon just yet. But Dr. Navindra Seeram, a University of Rhode Island natural product chemist whose expertise is in looking for new drug compounds in nature, and his colleagues recently found several new properties with potential health benefits in the sticky stuff that comes from trees.
His study, funded by the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers, found 54 compounds in maple syrup — half of them previously undiscovered — including several found to possess antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and even potentially anti-cancer benefits. In researching the compounds, scientists also found enzymes that may help inhibit Type 2 diabetes, though more studies are needed on whether the extraction of that element could one day lead to an effective drug. Already, previous studies had identified some antioxidant and plant compounds deemed beneficial to people in maple syrup.
"Our study took it to a different level," said Seeram, who presented his findings last month at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society. "We did this large scale, and took a large quantity of maple syrup and found 54 phenolics (plant compounds) of which 40 were being reported from maple syrup for the first time."
Cornell University researchers believe state maple producers could tap as much as $80 million annually in maple syrup and other maple products.
Maple farmers currently use less than 1 percent of all available maple trees statewide, said Michael Farrell, director of the Uihlein Forest, Cornell's 200-acre, 5,000-tap Maple Research and Extension Center in Lake Placid.
In some regions of the state, maple production is much more prevalent, including Wyoming, Lewis, Montgomery and Clinton counties, where producers tap 3.2 percent of their trees.
Farrell found that if all areas of New York followed suit, an extra $80 million could be generated annually.
With more tapped trees, Farrell said New York could become a serious competitor to Quebec, which controls 80 percent of the worldwide maple syrup market. Based on the latest U.S. Forest Service data, New York has some 280 million potential taps, many more than Quebec, which is estimated to have 110 million. The province taps about one-third of its trees, or 40 million, while New York taps 1.8 million.
Maple syrup producers in the Southshire and neighboring New York reported a positive year in the maple sugaring business, easily besting 2010 -- a poor year for most.
"The season started out slow, but then it ended really good," said Jason Lillie of Bennington, who tapped about 200 trees this year. Lillie said that he and another friend, who taps about an equivalent amount, had free flowing sap particularly later on in the season. "This was one of the best seasons," he said, since he started tapping in 1986.
"There are never two years in a row that are the same," said Jim Williamson of North Bennington, who has been tapping maples for more than six decades. Williamson said that he had produced about an average quantity of syrup for the year, but remarked that this year's syrup was lighter in color and a higher grade than usual.
"It was sweeter this year," he said, averaging about three percent sugar straight out of the tap. Williamson said that his sugaring season was short but still plentiful, and that he might have three to four more days of running sap ahead of him this week.
At first glance, Maggie and Bo, Rob Pearson’s two hefty Great Dane-Lab mixes looked menacing.
But on second glance, it was clear at least Maggie, who greeted your loyal scribe while gnawing on a big bone, wasn’t.
One thing I’ve learned about dogs is that if you talk to them and don’t act afraid, everything usually is just fine.
And so it was earlier this week at Mr. Pearson’s sugar shack near the end of Fjellman Road in West Millbury. In fact, it was more than fine.
Word on the street, or perhaps in the woods, is that this was a big year for local maple syrup producers and Mr. Pearson, who is 52 and perhaps the only person in Central Massachusetts who doesn’t own a cellphone, said this was the best year he’s had since he started making maple syrup in his small shack in 1990.
Seeing as he made about 50 gallons this year for sale at nearby Pearson’s Elmhurst Dairy, Mr. Pearson isn’t what you would call a big-time maple syrup maker.
Last year he made 30 gallons and the year before he didn’t make any because the damage from the Dec. 11-12 ice storm simply made it too difficult.
For city kids like me, maple syrup has always been something they make in New Hampshire. Mr. Pearson and Megan and Joseph Raskett, owners of the Hardwick Sugar Shack at the other end of Worcester County, are among those who do it locally.
The Rasketts made about 300 gallons of syrup for sale at nearby small country stores.
Lanark County is the maple syrup capital of Ontario. A great way to teach children about the importance of this centuries-old tradition is to pick up a copy of a new book by Perth resident Norene Tyers.
Entitled 'Sammy Sap Man', the book has been in the making for many years. Tyers first moved to Lanark County, to a 150-acre farm property, in 1977. The property included a sugar bush, which the previous owner continued to operate. Tyers' two young children watched with fascination as the sap was boiling.
That experience soon inspired a fictitious character and a poem. "After the first maple syrup season living in Lanark County, Sammy appeared and the first poem came to me and the stories just seemed to flow," Tyers recalled.
For more than 50 years, a large maple tree in our backyard has provided a tall, leafy home to countless squirrel families, created cooling shade for the houses built in its shadow and dropped a carpet of leaves every fall that turns into nutrient-rich compost.
This year, it also became a food source for my family. Armed with how-to guides downloaded from the Internet, I joined a centuries-old North American tradition and made maple syrup.
I’ve been reading and writing about urban agriculture during the past five years and thought if people are raising bees on university rooftops and growing mulberry trees in their backyards, why not try making maple syrup? I figured it would be a less messy and much quieter urban-farming project than raising chickens.
You can’t get much more locally produced than walking across your yard and collecting buckets full of sap. Here’s how I did it.
To celebrate the April 29 nuptials of Prince William and Kate Middleton, here are two recipes for cocktails to toast the newlyweds.
The first, Commonwealth Celebration, is a traditional Irish whisky cocktail which has been given a distinctly Canadian flavour with the addition of maple syrup. The classic 1930s Honeymoon Cocktail from Hollywood’s famed Brown Derby restaurant has been updated with Canadian whisky.
45 ml (1 1/2 oz) Irish whisky
30 ml (1 oz) Dubonnet
15 ml (1/2 oz) apricot brandy
7 ml (1/4 oz) maple syrup
Combine ingredients and stir well. Strain into a stemmed cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange spiral.
Makes 1 serving.
30 ml (1 oz) Canadian Whisky
22 ml (3/4 oz) Benedictine brandy
30 ml (1 oz) fresh apple juice
15 ml (1/2 oz) freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Combine ingredients in a cocktail shaker and shake well. Strain into a rounded martini glass (coupe). Garnish with an apple fan dusted lightly with cinnamon.
Makes 1 serving.
Sugarmakers around Windham County have made some of the finest maple syrup in Vermont for centuries.
But how that syrup is made varies greatly from one operation to the next.
Some, like the Corse Farm in Whitingham, are at the cutting edge of technology with a state-of-the-art sugaring process. Others, like the Morse family at Maple Hill Farm, also in Whitingham, continue to produce fancy syrup in the same manner they did more than 50 years ago.
To study the contrasts between the two multi-generational farms, the Vermont Woodland Association (in a partnership with the Woodland Owners’ Association) hosted a specialized tour of the sugarhouses.
Every spring, the association picks a sugar house to visit because it remains such a strong part of Vermont culture, said Windham County Forester Bill Guenther.
"We usually try to pick something that’s a little different, and this year we decided that since we had not been out to this portion of the county for a while, we’d come out to Whitingham and we wanted to do a study in contrast," he said. "It’s basically a celebration of the fabric that makes Vermont what it is."
A group of nearly 20 onlookers joined Guenther on the tour, stopping first at the Corse maple and dairy farm. One of the county’s most extensive sugaring operations with more than 10,000 taps, the Corse family has produced maple syrup on the farm since 1918.
On the wall in the sugarhouse is an annual production report recording every year since World War I. The family produced 138 gallons in 1918, compared to 3,409 in 2010.
This sugaring season, owner Roy Corse said he has surpassed all production totals with 4,171 gallons as of Friday. He and his team celebrated with pizza and champagne.
While the farm still uses some buckets, the biggest part of the operation is done with tubing, Corse said. "Our tubing systems are all under vacuum, between 23 and 25 inches of vacuum if we have our way."
Northern producers are hoping for rain to salvage season
As usual, the weather is playing a major role in the annual maple syrup season in New Brunswick.
Northern producers are in desperate need of rain and several southeastern producers were done before the season started due to the heavy winter snowfall.
But other southeastern maple syrup producers are having a banner season and say the weather could not have been any more co-operative this year.
Yvon Poitras of Fredericton, general manager of the New Brunswick Maple Syrup Association, said producers in the north say they have not been getting enough rain.
"What is happening now is that they have snow on the ground and the trees have given most of what they have in them in terms of sap," he said. "But the ground is frozen and the sap is frozen into the roots of the tree."
Rain is what is needed to get the sap moving up through the tree, said Poitras. He said they are relying on Mother Nature to come through for them.
That is the danger of having the maple sugar season pushed back to April, such as happened this year in northern New Brunswick, said the association spokesman. If it gets too warm and you cannot get the below 0C (32F) temperatures at night, that will do your season in, as well.
New York’s maple industry yields about $12 million in annual revenue but Cornell University researchers say that number could be increased by $80 million.
New York producers tap less than 1 percent of all available maple trees, said Michael Farrell, director of Cornell’s Uihlein Forest. Uihlein is a 200-acre, 5,000-tap maple research and extension center in Lake Placid. In some areas, maple production is greater, such as Montgomery County, where producers tap about 3.2 percent of their trees.
He backs New York Sen. Charles Schumer’s Maple Tap Act, which is part of the 2012 Farm Bill. The bill would provide the U.S. Department of Agriculture access to $20 million a year in grants to support maple research, education, marketing and business development.
New York could be a contender to Quebec, which controls 80 percent of the global maple syrup market, if it took advantage of the 280 million potential taps. Quebec has about 110 million taps. But Quebec taps more than a third of its trees, 40 million, compared with New York, which taps 1.8 million trees.
“It makes sense to invest in an industry that is sustainable, has high returns and that has a growing demand currently being supplied by another country,” Farrell said.
Mark Beyer is one of those multitalented guys who always figures his way around obstacles while the rest of us look baffled and debate our options.
That's why I wasn't surprised when Beyer went from a mere woodlot owner one March to a seasoned maple syrup maker the next, complete with 50 five-gallon sap buckets, dual "stethoscope" collection tubes and a sophisticated wood-burning sap evaporator. Naturally, Beyer assembled everything himself or bartered key parts from folks lacking his vision.
My wife, Penny, and I toured Beyer's sugar camp near Scandinavia on a recent Friday night when he and his wife, Darla, invited us over to drink beer, eat hot dogs and watch sap boil inside the steamy comfort of his sugar shack.
Beyer's sugar bush consists of scores of large sugar-maple trees near the front of his 10-acre woodlot. Just so we're clear, Beyer doesn't use terms like "sugar camp" or "sugar bush." I use them to make it appear I've always hung out at maple syrup operations. I also let folks think I've always known store-bought syrup starts as corn, not maple sap.
The use of a new academic study to tout the health benefits of maple syrup — including a newly discovered compound that's been named "Quebecol" in honour of the world's No. 1 source of the pancake sweetener — has been slammed as "irresponsible" by a top Canadian authority in public science.
A U.S. researcher funded by a Quebec farming council and Canada's federal Agriculture Ministry has identified more than 50 "beneficial compounds" in pure maple syrup, a finding that Quebec's syrup producers say will launch a "new era" in the long history of the iconic Canadian liquid, driven by the "number of healthy compounds" it contains.
"Maple syrup is becoming a champion food when it comes to the number and variety of beneficial compounds found in it," University of Rhode Island chemist Navindra Seeram, an expert in phenolic compounds found in food, said in a summary of research presented this week at the American Chemical Society's national conference in Anaheim, California. "It's important to note that in our laboratory research we found that several of these compounds possess anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, which have been shown to fight cancer, diabetes and bacterial illnesses."