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Ryan’s Sugar Shack. Courtesy photo.




Sweet season
Weather boosted state’s maple syrup output

06/28/18



 By Scott Murphy

smurphy@hippopress.com 
 
Thanks to some help from Mother Nature, New Hampshire’s maple syrup producers enjoyed a strong season this year. Increases in the number of taps, yield per tap and overall production landed New Hampshire fifth in maple-producing in the country, behind Vermont, New York, Maine and Wisconsin.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s annual maple syrup production report, New Hampshire maple producers bottled 163,000 gallons of syrup in 2018, up about 6 percent from last year’s season. New Hampshire producers added 10,000 new tree taps for a total of 560,000 taps across the state, and the average yield grew to just under .3 gallons of maple syrup per tap (just under five cups per tap).
 
Mother helps best
The maple syrup season typically runs from mid-February through mid-March at the onset of spring, when sap begins running up maple trees to help their leaves and branches grow. It can take anywhere from 40 to 60 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of maple syrup depending on when in the season the sap was collected and the sap’s sugar content. 
The mark of a successful season boils down to “warm days and cold nights” according to Jim Fadden, president of the New Hampshire Maple Producers Association in North Woodstock. That combination allows sap flow to stall overnight and run steadily during the day, prolonging the time it takes for trees to reach full bloom. 
“No matter how much technology you have, there’s nothing like the assistance of Mother Nature to give you a hand,” said Fadden, the sixth generation of the Fadden family to run Fadden’s Sugarhouse and General Store in North Woodstock. “Weather is the most important ingredient for maple production.”
Fadden said that irregular temperatures this year caused a longer season than usual, with some producers tapping trees as early as January in the southern part of the state and continuing to collect sap through March. After some warmer than usual temperatures in January, Fadden said, the state “went right into the freezer again” in February and March, stalling sap flows in maple trees and allowing maple producers to collect for longer.
Still, while New Hampshire’s production increased overall, the irregular weather provided different results for producers in traditionally colder regions of the state. Fadden said temperatures were particularly cold later in the season, which affected sap flow and prevented trees from having a full, normal bloom. 
“People south of the White Mountains had a very good season, but it was more spotty up north,” said Nick Kosko, vice president of the Maple Producers Association and owner of Meadow View Sugarhouse​​ in Union. “Up north, it really mattered if you had a south-facing slope versus a north-facing slope.”
Similar issues arose in the southern tier of the state. Chris Pfeil owns and operates The Maple Guys, including a sugarhouse in Lyndeborough and a store selling maple sugaring equipment and supplies in Wilton. While he said his production went well this year, he also reported a dip in the amount of sap he was able to collect late in the season. 
“It got really warm in February, and then the temperature suddenly went back down in March,” said Pfeil. “It finally opened back up at the end of the month, but there’s only so much sap still available in March.”
 
The sweet spot 
Still, many maple producers did experience a great season this year. Fadden said the middle part of the state seemed to have the most success this year.
“We had our best sugaring season yet,” said Lane Bockius, whose family owns and operates Crow Valley Farm in Hopkinton. “We had a chance to tap our trees earlier than we usually do, in January instead of February. We lucked out with the warm spell that New Hampshire had, creating a heavy sap flow early on.”
Dean Wilber of Mapletree Farm in Concord has followed the maple industry for “71 of my 78 years” and opened Mapletree 43 years ago. While Wilber’s tap count was down to 850 compared to about 1,500 last year, he was able to produce about 20 more gallons of maple syrup with the sap he collected for a total of 218 gallons. That rivals some of his best production years in the early 2000s, when he would produce up to 225 gallons of syrup with just 550 taps. 
“We put out as many taps as we can so we can produce the same amount of syrup, but it doesn’t always work that way,” said Wilber. “We were short a couple hundred taps from what we usually have out, but we made more syrup than we have over the past few years.”
Even with the strong season, Wilber doesn’t expect to repeat the level of production he had a couple decades ago, primarily due to continually rising temperatures year after year. 
“Some people don’t want to admit that there’s climate change, but I’ve seen it in action every season,” said Wilber. “The season has typically ended earlier and earlier, which means producers are tapping earlier and earlier to collect as much sap as they can.”
 
Next-gen syrup
Even with these challenges, the next generation of maple producers is helping the industry continue on in New Hampshire. Ryan Neal began tapping maple trees in his backyard when he was just 13 years old. Four years later, he now runs Ryan’s Sugar Shack in Chester, pulling sap from roughly 20 miles of tubing tapped into about 1,500 maple trees. This year, Neal produced more than a third of a gallon per tree, compared to a quarter of a gallon in years past. 
“It really came down to if you hit the right time to tap this year between cold spells,” said Neal. “I had a pretty exceptional season this year, and I think most guys who use tubing will say similar things.”
According to Neal, tap holes for tubing systems stay open for up to nine weeks, whereas holes for traditional sap buckets will only stay open for about five weeks. He explained that taps on tubing are typically smaller and provide a sealed passage for sap to flow through. Since taps for sap buckets drip into an open container, trees will respond to the increased bacteria from air and bugs getting into the bucket, closing up the tap holes more quickly and diminishing sap flow.
Neal also attributed New Hampshire’s strong production this season to an increased number of maple producers in the state. According to Fadden, the New Hampshire Maple Producers Association currently has about 412 members, up from 398 in 2016. 
“It’s an addiction — once you start, it’s very difficult to stop,” said Fadden. “There are folks who start out in their backyard with 10 to 20 taps one year, and then down the road they might have as many as a thousand taps. There’s something about making something natural with your own hands that’s really gratifying.”
Pfeil of The Maple Guys added that the best part of making maple syrup is that anyone can do it. “Anyone can get a couple buckets or a milk jug and hang it on a tree and make syrup for themselves,” he said. “It’s basically a science project the whole family can do.” 





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