February 13, 2011

Cornell Expert Studies Syrup Production in New England

Print More

RANDOLPH, Vt. (AP) — The mountains of snow that have buried the Northeast this winter will have a sweet — and just slightly bitter — taste for the region’s maple syrup producers.

Sweet because an abundance of snow actually helps with the production of the sap that is boiled down to produce syrup. But bitter because, well, too much snow is just as much a chore for maple syrup producers to deal with as it is for the rest of us.

And most of us don’t make our livings — or even hobbies — out of clambering over snow drifts in the woods tapping trees and repairing plastic tubing to gather sap from far-flung maple trees.

Still, on the whole, “snow is considered a good thing,” said Steve Childs, New York state maple specialist with Cornell University.

It moderates the temperature in the woods, keeping it cool if the air warms up, which is good for maple. The snow layers also insulate the ground, keeping it from freezing too deep so trees can draw up moisture during sap flow, which can start in February, or earlier if there is a thaw.

“So we like to see some snow,” Childs said. “Of course, if it gets deeper than what maple tubing lines are then it gets to be quite a problem, but I don’t think we’re there in most places. That’s usually like three feet to five feet.”

Of course, winter is not over quite yet.

With another big storm, the Silloway farm in Randolph Center, Vt., could be approaching that, with more than two feet of snow already in the woods at the beginning of February.

“The deep snow will keep the ground thawed out so sap will start when the air temperature is ready,” said David Silloway, 65, a syrup producer and dairy farmer. “The deep snow will keep the sap cool, air cool, so that it will make lighter syrup.”

Lighter syrup is typically produced early in the season when it’s colder. As it warms up, the syrup tends to get darker with a more robust flavor as microorganisms feed on the sugar coming out of the tree.

“It’s kind of like cheese. The flavor is dictated by the microorganisms,” said Timothy Perkins, director of the University of Vermont Proctor Maple Research Center.

Since Silloway has a bad knee, his nephew hikes around their nearly 20 acres in early winter when there’s only about a foot of snow on the ground to check the plastic tubing that runs tree to tree to collect sap. After two storms dumped more than two feet of snow in early February, they will have to use snowshoes and snowmobiles to get out to tap the nearly 2,000 trees, unless there’s a big thaw.

Thanks to all that snow, the whole process could take three to four days, rather than one to two when there is not much left on the ground.

“It just gets harder to work in the woods,” said Winton Pitcoff, coordinator for the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association. “The guys that are running tubing deep into the woods are used to having to use snowshoes and stuff like that, but with four feet of snow on the ground it just gets harder and harder.”

His advice: wait. “The snow will compact eventually,” he said.

Last year, spring came on fast in New England, warming up too much and cutting the season short for some, particularly those who collect sap in buckets hanging from trees. That has prompted more producers to install vacuum lines, which actually pull the sap from the tree.

“Particularly after last year the evidence was really there that it makes a huge difference,”said Pitcoff. “You get more sap, significantly more sap.”

But making predictions about the season is a crap shoot. It all comes down to the weather during those several weeks of sugaring season. That is the period when temperatures rise above freezing enough for trees to run sap and before it is warm enough for them to push out leaves.

Warm days followed by below-freezing nights is prime sugaring weather, so that frozen trees full of sap thaw out and push out sap through holes and then freeze up at night and suck in moisture from the ground for more sap production.

The previous spring and summer also play a role.

Vermont — the country’s maple syrup giant, which produced 890,000 gallons in 2010 — had a good growing season last year. With ample moisture and plenty of sunshine, the trees were able to produce enough sugar through photosynthesis.

“They went into the winter being very healthy,” Perkins said.

The snow will help, Childs said. And it is likely to provide ample supply for sugar-on-snow parties. But syrup producers will not know what kind of season they are having until it is all over.

“It could turn 70 degrees and all the snow could leave in three days and we’d be right back where we started from,” Childs said.

Original Author: The Associated Press