It's the sweetest time of year

Oh, spring is getting so close I can almost taste it!  Despite the wet snow cover, the days are noticeably longer, the sun is higher in the sky, and the buckets are out.

Jeffrey Jenness of Orebed Sugar Shack in DeKalb Junction says it's been a slow year so far for sap, "Mother nature hasn't given us anything yet."  As of Monday, Jenness had only collected a couple hundred gallons of sap.  For an operation like his, that's not enough to get the equipment dirty and start making syrup.

3 batches of syrup. Photo: astanleyjones, CC some rights reserved

But that was yesterday.  Today's weather looks better.

"It's just going to depend on the temperature.  You've got to have 40 degrees during the day and 20 at night, so the trees can fill back up with sap.  Because the trees only have so much sap in them, and after 2 or 3 days, they're empty.  And if you don't have that temperature change, they don't fill back up."

Back when he joined his wife's family business, Jenness says they wouldn't have tapped trees until March.  But, "We just don't have the snows and temperatures we had 20 or 30 years ago."  As the winter has gotten warmer, sugaring season has started earlier.

Last winter, with its bizarrely high March temperatures, got things off to a much earlier start than usual.  And unfortunately, an earlier finish.

"We were at about a 30-35 percent last year of what we usually would get.  It was too warm too quick.  The trees just shut down."

The Orebed Sugar Shack may have produced less syrup, but it didn't necessarily hurt the bottom line.  Jenness says instead of selling at lower wholesale prices, they held on to more syrup, and sold it at higher retail prices.

Still, he's hoping for a productive season this year.  And that's all in the hands of Madam Nature.

Check out The Dirt tomorrow for more maple syrup news!  David Sommerstein will check out the new maple porter that's soon to be on tap at Lake Placid Pub and Brewery.

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  1. We have the highest hopes this year with nearly 200 buckets hung in the Village of Potsdam, and almost 400 in Hopkinton. You can plan and prepare and rig up all sorts of fancy equipment, but the weather is the deciding factor, and we have no control there.
    I love sugaring season. It comes right when you could get very tired of winter…all of a sudden, there's work to do and things can get very busy around the sugarhouse. Sometimes you work like a slave and stay up late to finish cooking, and then do it again the next day. Four to six weeks goes by pretty quickly though, and when you finish up on that last day…lo and behold, it's spring!

  2. Back in the late 50's early 60's my brother and I used to help our neighbors, the Johnson's, during sugaring season. They tapped about 200-250 acres of trees starting in early to mid February because of the large number of trees involved and the depth of the snow back then. They were in the vanguard of North Country sugar bushes using plastic lines rather than buckets starting in 59 or 60.

    To my mind some of the most telling evidence of the effects of global warming is the quality of the maple syrup currently produced in the North Country. The picture of the syrup in the Ball jars demonstrates the differences. Back in the 50's and early 60's the lowest grade syrup the Johnson's canned for consumer sale looked about like the yellowish syrup in the right most jar, the amber syrups, as in the other two jars, were put into bulk 30 gallon barrels and sold for industrial use. The extra fine grade syrup they boiled down back then was nearly water clear, as the season waned the syrup turned darker.

    The boiling pans used back then would likely get one in trouble today as they were soldered steel pans using common tin and lead solder. The evaporator setup was about 5 feet wide and 15 to 20 feet long. The fire was wood fed using chunks 2 to 4 feet long; it was hot and great care had to be exercised to ensure that the pans never ran dry/burned as the solder would melt, the pans would be ruined/damaged and the language resultant would turn the air in the sugar shack BLUE. It happened on occasion.

    It was a fun time making syrup back then. We used horses with a sled in the woods early, as the Ford Jubilee tractor they owned could usually not get through the snow with a wagon until about mid March.

  3. Jeff has hosted our students at Orebed for a spring visit several times. The place is amazing, a high tech operation in the great north woods…delicious syrup and the sweet smell of maple.

  4. Folks who are relatively new to syrup making get what they call "the bug" and basically become obsessed with syrup, trees, weather forcasts, acquiring gear and the rest. My personal bug this season is how many beautiful maple forests I see as I travel around the county that are NOT being tapped. I look at trees and I see dollars. There's work to do, and money to be made, but that little state next door make far more maple syrup than we do here in New York.
    Syrup making isn't rocket science: it's just cooking. You can start up a very small syrup hobby for just a few bucks, and can enter the business of syrup making and selling at any level, whether you have $500, or $5000, or $50,000 to invest. Breaking even seems to be the worst possible outcome, and even that beats sitting on your butt.
    So why don't we see more syrup operations here in New York? Why does little old Vermont outproduce us by such a margin? We have the climate, and the trees, but not the workers; or is it something else?

  5. I must admit to a secret desire to tap my own sugar maples. I'd never be a commercial operation (nor would I want to be) but I have several mature trees behind my house that just seem to want to be tapped. I'd love to see Cooperative Extension or some other group offer home sugaring workshops for amateurs like me. I do occasionally see trees being tapped in a yard, though I suspect this was more common years ago.

    • Kathy, Do it! We started out here, right in the middle of the village of Potsdam, tapping six big trees here and next door. We partnered with a fellow who had a sugarhouse and made a couple of gallons…and we were hooked. Now my little industry hangs 170 buckets on trees belonging to 14 different neighbors, and if the season plays out as we hope there will be some for them and some to sell. So far, I've managed to cover my costs nicely