Third-generation maple syrup producer Clark Bradbury of Bradbury Maple Farms explains in March 2019 how reverse osmosis works to eliminate 75 percent of water from maple syrup before the maple sap from trees is boiled. Maine Maple Weekend takes place this year March 27 and 28. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / Star-Herald

Among those who remember exactly when the COVID-19 pandemic stopped time in 2020, it’s a good bet Maine maple producers are near the top of the list.

Virus restrictions that began last March caused the postponement and, for some, the cancellation of Maine Maple Sunday Weekend, an event state officials said can make or break a small producer’s bottom line.

“Most producers report that they can make 50 percent or more of their annual sales in the two-day Maine Maple Sunday Weekend event,” Scott Dunn, president of the Maine Maple Producers Association, said Thursday.

“The 38th annual event will certainly look and feel a bit different due to the pandemic, but we’re ready,” Dunn said.

As March’s cold nights and increasingly warmer days start sap flowing, sugarhouses in Aroostook County and across the state hope Maple Weekend will bring not only people, but a welcome economic boost to an industry that felt some of the first effects of the COVID-19 shutdown.

Most of the state’s producers reported overall losses in 2020, but good sales throughout the year — including to wholesalers — helped, Dunn said, and demand for locally produced maple products is growing.

Maine has about 450 licensed maple producers who make more than 575 gallons of syrup per year. The industry contributes over $27 million annually to the state’s economy, according to the Maine Maple Producers Association website. That includes 560 full- and part-time jobs.

Though they were bypassed in the pandemic’s first months when the federal government provided financial relief to agricultural producers, maple syrup makers were added last summer to the USDA’s Coronavirus Food Assistance Program following a successful push by Gov. Janet Mills and Maine legislators.

This year’s Maple Weekend is March 27 and 28. Traditionally held the last weekend in March, the event allows maple sugaring operations to welcome the public for tours, treats — and purchases.

Community support and new marketing approaches have helped Aroostook sugarhouses survive during the pandemic.

Steve Hardwick, who along with his wife Holly owns Northwoods Nectar in Eagle Lake uses an old fashioned sled to haul tools on the maple farm. Credit: Courtesy of Northwoods Nectar

“Because of the stupendous support of our community, they carried us through. Mom-and-pop stores in Eagle Lake, supermarkets in Madawaska and Fort Kent, and our country store in Fort Kent — without them we would have suffered greatly,” Holly Hardwick of Northwoods Nectar in Eagle Lake said.

This will be the ninth season for Northwoods Nectar, which Hardwick and her husband Steve own. This year they boosted their wholesale market and instituted UPC codes to make it easier for stores to carry their merchandise.

“Maine Maple weekend helps get us started. A lot of funding is put into each year to produce maple syrup,” Hardwick said. “So that festival weekend gives us the boost to carry us through.”

The Bradbury family of Bradbury Maple Farm in Bridgewater wound up selling more product to wholesalers last year than they normally would, but a new sales platform helped keep business going.

When the pandemic canceled the biggest sales event of the year, that hurt sales, Bart Bradbury said. So, for the first time, they created an online presence.

“We did it for online Christmas sales and it was a big help,” he said.

Kristi Brannan of Spring Break Maple Farms in Smyrna Mills said the loss of Maple Weekend was a big financial hit.

Gwen Giles of Hodgdon rolls fresh maple taffy onto a stick during 2018’s Maine Maple Sunday at Spring Break Maple and Honey in Smyrna. The tasty treat was popular with young and old alike. Credit: Joseph Cyr / Houlton Pioneer Times

“That’s the biggest event that we do in the run of the year. But our sales have been strong this year, even though there is a pandemic. And I think the biggest reason is people are home eating breakfast and they want maple syrup,” Brannan said.

She said Spring Break limited their hours and employed internet and curbside sales until they could reopen their store. They limit customer numbers and require everyone to wear a mask.

The Maine Maple Producers Association has adopted Centers for Disease Control guidelines on social distancing and providing a safe environment for both employees and customers, including adjusted hours and purchasing options such as curbside pickup.

Whatever it takes, Aroostook’s sugaring community stands willing to adapt. And the Maine Maple Sunday celebration can’t come soon enough.

“Last year was the first year that we’ve missed it, and not only was it strange not having anyone come to your sugar house, but because everything was shut down, there was nobody traveling by your sugar house,” Brannan said.

This past week, Bradbury Farm tapped 4,500 trees and awaits a bit of a warmup to start the sap flowing.

“The temperature has to get into the 40s during the day. Maybe next week. But it can’t get too cold at night or it takes too long for the tree to warm up the next day,” Bradbury said.

In Eagle Lake, Northwoods Nectar will celebrate under COVID protocols, cutting back on some activities but opening every weekend. Tours and observations of boiling will be eliminated due to social distancing requirements, but there will be taffy on the snow.

“We’ve been cooped up staying safe for a long time and we have lost out on a lot of fun activities over the year — activities we took for granted,” Hardwick said. “So I am most looking forward to seeing everyone just relax and enjoy themselves.”

Reporters Alexander MacDougall, Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli and Jessica Potila contributed to this story.