Press-Republican

April 6, 2014

Maple sugaring season is underway

By Richard Gast, Cornell Ag Connection
Press-Republican

---- — The calendar says spring is here. Days are getting longer, and every time I get to feel the radiant warmth of the sun beaming down from a glacial blue sky, it sure feels good. 

A lot of us think of early spring as mud season. I prefer to think of it as maple season, a remarkable time of transition. I’ve learned to look beyond the ice, grit, slush and moosh to the buckets hanging on the sugar maples and the gentle mist that rises from the melting snow in the field behind; and to the blue sap lines in the forest beyond, which stands majestically bathed in sunshine and shadow as clouds slowly lumber across the sky.

We’ve all grown weary of the relentless cold, ice and snow. Almost all of the region’s maple syrup producers finished tapping their trees in February, but as I sit down to write this article during the last weekend in March, many, including almost all of those at higher elevations, have still not made any syrup. Some still have sap lines buried under snow.

At lower elevations, sap has run a little. But when it stops, the anticipation begins again as producers wait for empty sap lines to flow or frozen lines to thaw.

Sugaring is weather-related. Production hinges on the freezing nights and daytime thaws. Optimum production occurs when nighttime temperatures fall into the mid-20s and daytime temperatures range in the low 40s, preferably with sunny skies.

When asked whether the late start will affect the overall season, Extension Associate Michael Farrell, regional maple specialist and director of Cornell’s Uihlein Forest in Lake Placid said, “Time will tell. Generally we would have been making syrup by now. Hopefully, we will have several weeks of good sap-collecting weather in April.”

Fortunately, at the time of this writing, the weather forecast looks near-perfect. It would appear that by the time this column goes to print, the sugaring season will have begun in earnest. And timing will not affect the quality.

March 2012 was the warmest on record for all the lower 48 states, and the government has been keeping records since 1895. Daytime high temperatures ranged from the high 60s through the low 80s for weeks, shattering previous records on a nearly daily basis. Nighttime low temperatures remained where producers would’ve liked daytime highs to have been.

And therein lies the conundrum. The perception is that the region now receives considerably more warm weather during the tapping season, perhaps too much. There’s a feeling that sap flows may not be as heavy in late winter and early spring as they once were, that they are less consistent, that spring comes earlier and that winters are less severe.

During the past decade, scientists have been looking at changes in the onset and duration of the maple season. A study conducted by researchers at Proctor Maple Research Center in Vermont confirmed that the traditional short season of daily freeze and thaw cycles has gotten about three days, or eight to 10 percent, shorter than it was in the 1940s. The Vermont sugaring season now begins about eight days earlier and ends about 11 days earlier than it did 40 years ago.

A Cornell study looked at the relationship between sap flow and temperature at thousands of locations from North Carolina to Quebec to Minnesota. Those researchers also determined that peak starting dates in the Northeast are now about a week earlier than in 1970. By scaling down global climate computer models to regional scales to project daily temperatures into the year 2100, the study concluded that in northern regions the overall number of flow days probably won’t change much. The season, however, will continue to shift, becoming earlier over time.

The bottom line — more and more, producers are tapping earlier than their ancestors did.

The sun is quite a bit warmer this time of year than it is in late February or early March. Anyone who produces an agricultural crop knows the weather is beyond their control. But, because snow cover generates radiational cooling at night, this past weekend’s additional heavy snowfall could prove advantageous should daytime temperatures range a bit warmer than producers would like to see.

A gradual warm-up is best for production and, with luck, nights will remain frosty and days warm for at least a few more weeks, perfect weather for making syrup.

Richard L. Gast, Extension program educator II, Horticulture, Natural Resources, Energy; agriculture programs assistant, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Franklin County, 355 West Main St., Suite 150, Malone, 12953. Call 483-7403, fax 483-6214, email rlg24@cornell.edu.