A mild winter across the Northeast is injecting extra uncertainty into maple syrup season, but many producers say they'll just go with the flow, whenever it starts.
Temperatures have been up and snowfall totals have been down throughout the region this winter, raising some concern for the maple syrup crop. But syrup producers say the weather during the six-week season when sap flows matters more than the weather leading up to it.
"The mild winter, I'm sure has some effect on the trees and the soil and the microorganisms and so forth, but as long as you get those freezes and thaws during the actual sap flow season, those are what control how much sap you get," said Brian Stowe, sugaring operations manager at the University of Vermont's Proctor Maple Research Center.
Below-freezing nights followed by warm days are necessary to start the sap flowing from maple trees, a period that usually begins in late February or early March. But those conditions arrived early in some areas, prompting producers like Ben Fisk, of Temple, to start collecting and boiling sap Feb. 2, more than a month earlier than he did last year.
"We made syrup the earliest we've ever made syrup this year," said Fisk, 23, a fifth generation producer who has been making maple syrup since he was 5. "This time of year, there should be three or four feet of snow, and it should be cold out and we shouldn't even be thinking about making syrup for another couple weeks."
Though Fisk was happy to get a jump start on the season, it could end early, too, if prolonged stretches of warm weather result in budding trees. That's the main concern in New York state, where the director of the New York Maple Producers Association has been hearing from plenty of worried members.
"I've had more phone calls this year than I've ever gotten before. Everyone wants to know what everyone else is doing. `Is it time?' `Should we tap?'" said Helen Thomas, who set the 1,700 taps on her family's farm about a week earlier than usual.
With so little snow, she worries that all it will take is one warm day in March to trick the trees into thinking spring has arrived. Once trees start to bud, the sap develops an "off" flavor, effectively ending the season.
"The snow moderates any warm-up. You can have a 60-degree day in March, but if there's two feet of snow on the ground, that tends to keep the woods cool, so you can get past that warm day or two," she said.
In North Andover, Mass., Paul Boulanger of Turtle Lane Maple Farm, has decided not to tap his trees at all this year because he's already seeing signs of leaf buds on the trees.
"Even if we started tapping right now, we'd only get a couple of weeks of very watered down sap, and it's just not worth it ... We just didn't have winter, and without winter, there's no spring, and without spring, there's no maple syrup," said Boulanger, who still plans to give educational tours of his sugar house by watering down syrup he made last year and turning it back into sap.
But in northern Vermont, Jacques Couture is optimistic. Couture, 61, has been sugaring since he was a toddler and has run his own operation for 40 years. Some of his best crops have been after winters just like this one, he said.
"Some people say, `Is it worth tapping this year, you don't even have any snow. It's going to be spring before you know it,'" he said. "But the caution I would say is, `Don't transplant your tomatoes outdoors just yet, because it ain't over.'"
Unlike points further south, there has been some snow in Westfield, Vt., where Couture lives. But it's closer to knee-deep than the chest-deep drifts he faced last year when it was time to tap his trees.
"We've had a lot of thaws this winter," he said. "But the old timers say, every thaw in the winter is a run of sap in the spring," he said. "This is agriculture, and you never what kind of crop you're going to get, but you've still got to try to do the best you can. ... So I'm not the least bit discouraged about it at this point."
It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. Last year, U.S. maple production hit an all-time high of 2.79 million gallons, led by Vermont with 1.14 million gallons. Beyond good weather, technology has played a role in the industry's growth, with vacuum tube systems that pull he sap from trees and new taps with valves designed to prevent sap flowing back into the trees.
Small amounts of syrup already have been produced in southern and central Maine, the No. 3 syrup-producing state behind Vermont and New York. Eric Ellis, a manager at Maine Maple Products in Madison and vice president of the Maine Maple Producers Association, said producers statewide are tapping their trees.
"There certainly is concern, but going into any season there's always a little bit of doubt," Ellis said. "We don't really know until it's over what the crop's going to be."
Bodan Peters, president of the New Hampshire Maple Producers Association, said he probably will wait until early March to set up his 800 taps in Sugar Hill. The mild winter doesn't have him too concerned.
"Everything leading up to this point is just what gets thrown at us," said Peters, who grew up on a farm and has been tapping his own trees for 12 years.
"If you're going to get into maple sugaring, you've got to love it, the good and the bad about it," he said. "If you can actually pay for your equipment, that's a plus."