DOVER-FOXCROFT, Maine — Every February, for nearly 70 years, Bob Moore of Bob’s Sugar House in Dover-Foxcroft has gone into the woods to get ready for his busiest time of year: maple sap season.
This year, though, the stalwart 78-year-old maple syrup producer said the 3 feet or more of snow that got dumped on his sugarbushes by the mid-February blizzard has made usual tasks a challenge. So far, he and his crew have about 2,000 of their 6,000 taps in the maple trees, and they are working hard to get the job finished before the sap starts running.
“The conditions are horrible,” he said Tuesday. “It’s very difficult. We start tapping on snowshoes, then this past big storm came and left all this fluffy stuff, and it sticks to your snowshoes.”
But Moore sounded cheerful, despite that.
“It’s something that gets in your blood or you wouldn’t be foolish enough to do it,” he said of being a maple syrup producer. “If you’re not optimistic, you’re defeated already.”
While the deep snow is making it hard simply to get to the trees this winter, fluctuating weather conditions in recent years have been keeping maple syrup producers all over the state on their toes, according to maple syrup expert Kathy Hopkins with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. Maine is one of the country’s most important maple syrup producers and last year made 675,000 gallons, more than 130,000 gallons more than it made in 2014. That’s enough to put it third in the nation, behind New York and Vermont, the dominant American producer, which last year boiled nearly 2 million gallons of syrup from its maple trees.
Typically, maple producers look for a cold January and February and tap their trees in mid-to-late February or early March, depending on where in Maine their sugarbush is located. Nighttime freezing and daytime thawing of the trees produces sap that can be boiled into maple syrup. Ideally, daytime temperatures from 40 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit and nighttime temperatures in the mid-20s produce the best-quality syrup, she said.
“These days, with the weather so capricious, the maple season can begin anytime between January and late March,” she said. “It’s good for producers to be aware. To be ready. To have all of their equipment ready to go, and then you can pounce as soon as the weather is right, no matter what the calendar says. When there’s weather like we’re having now — cold nights and warm days — then you can start.”
So far this winter, there already have been some good sap runs in the southern part of Maine in the third week in January, she said. Producers who were ready already have made some syrup.
“It’s early,” Hopkins said. “The thing about it is that if you go back in time, back through 100 years of records, you will find early seasons and you will find late seasons. I would guess that it seems like there are more early seasons now than there used to be.”
Josh Knipping of Back Ridge Sugar House in Winterport runs a small, one-man operation and generally puts in about 550 taps per year. This February, he’s feeling behind, with just 300 taps in place so far.
“The sap started running on Sunday and it caught me off guard a little bit,” Knipping, who also is a boat technician, said. “I haven’t done a boil yet.”
He said February can be a season of “hurry up and wait” for a maple syrup producer.
“It’s exciting, when the sap starts to run. It’s also a lot of anxiety,” he said. “I always want to feel ready to go when the season gets here, but I never am.”
Right now, he’s in the woods by 6 a.m. and doesn’t get home until 6 p.m. His days are long, but he loves the work.
“I’m always looking forward to it,” he said. “I’d love it to be a full-time gig.”
Maine’s maple producers work hard, Hopkins said, and are largely at the mercy of Mother Nature. But the work has rewards beyond the production of sweet, golden-brown syrup.
“You just have to give it your best shot and go with the flow. Take whatever Mother Nature delivers to you and make the best of it,” she said, adding that sap season is a tangible sign that spring is coming. “I like winter, but spring is nice, too. The weather changes. You can hear it. You can feel it. The sun is higher in the sky and the birds start singing. That’s what’s so magical about Maine Maple Sunday. Everybody has done all the winter things that they want to do. Now they’re ready to get out.”
Maine Maple Sunday, when producers all around the state welcome visitors to their sugar houses, always falls on the fourth Sunday in March. This year, it will be on Sunday, March 26.