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Maple syrup production is early this year

YATES COUNTY--People who make maple syrup are highly attuned to the weather, looking for below-freezing nights and above-freezing days. Warm winter sunshine sends them into the woods with drills, spiles (those are spigots to insert into holes in maple trees, to channel the flowing sap) and buckets or plastic tubing to collect the sap. While they wait for the sap to begin to flow in earnest, they ready evaporating equipment and tally their supplies of containers. Today's syrup makers are also armed with hydrometers to check the sugar level each day in the sap, much as winemakers assess the sugar content of their grapes.
"The perfect scenario is 40 degree weather during the day and 20s at night," explains Mervin Newswanger, of the Sugar Shack Blueberry Farm on East Swamp Road in Penn Yan. "When the sun warms the tree, the tree is thinking it might grow so the sap goes up toward where the leaves will be." At this early stage, the sap is less sweet, so it takes more gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup. The exact proportion of gallons of sap to finished syrup--averaging close to 40 to one --changes during the season with the weather and melting snow.
Last year, Newswanger says, he didn't tap his trees until March 8. "The weather was brutal cold and we didn't have our first decent run until March 10," he recalls. "Last year was a late but excellent year." He made 82 gallons of syrup last year, significantly more than his average yield of 60 to 65 gallons from the same trees. Newswanger's evaporator is wood-fired, requiring about a face cord of wood per seven gallons of syrup, so he was using a day too cold for a sap run to cut more wood for next year.
Dave Schiek of Schiek's Maple Products in Penn Yan was exhausted after staying up all night boiling sap. Like most syrup producers, he works with the sap as it's produced, because the best quality syrup is made from sap boiled very soon after it flows from the tree. "A lot of people have been scrambling to get going this year because the season was early," he says. "Some people tapped in January. Last year was very late with most of the sap coming in early April, so the season was short but intense. If the weather pattern holds, we should be on track for a good year." Schiek averages about 1,200 gallons each year.
"Just when you think you've got it figured out, nature throws you a curve," says John Sauder of Brookside Maple on the Dundee Hallock Road, quoting his mentor, Larry Huntley, who retired from syrup production as Sauder began making syrup. "Mr. Huntley said the longer he's done it, the less he knows."
Sauder has three sons who help with the syrup-making, a process that takes about eight weeks from set-up to clean-up, with a little extra time spent on firewood cutting and equipment maintenance. "I enjoy being outdoors, and it's something to do when it's too muddy to do anything else," he says. "If anyone thinks maple syrup is expensive, they should spend a day in the woods and the sugar house. If I figure my hours, counting firewood cutting and equipment maintenance, it's more in line of a hobby."
He has 650 to 700 taps; some connecting to tubing, some to buckets, and aims for 180 to 200 gallons of syrup each year. Some goes to customers as far away as Louisiana, Alabama and Texas; the rest is sold here. Of course some of it stays home to be poured onto waffles and ice cream, and he says his younger children like to add maple syrup to their milk after school.
John Keidel tried several ways of making maple syrup before deciding he best liked the older method of hanging buckets on trees and making the rounds to collect the sap. "There's a lot of work involved if you do it correctly and you do it with cleanliness in mind," he says. "I got tired of pumps and machinery, so I built a little sugar shack out in the sugar bush. I call it my sap cathedral, and a lot of the time I find doing syrup the old-fashioned way can be very relaxing and holistic. I get between one gallon and 25 gallons a year--I have 125 buckets--and I'm happy."
Working full time, Keidel doesn't get stressed over the syrup process, though information technology now allows him to take his work to the sugar bush and answer calls and emails from the field. "That's good and bad," he says. "I can take care of business, but it takes away some of the spirit of being in the woods with your evaporator."
Usually, he says, he looks for the "three Fs" before tapping his trees--"The final Friday in February"--but this year's weather brought an unusually early start. Sometimes he works on his own; sometimes friends show up to help. He and his family don't eat a lot of pancakes, and they don't personally use a lot of maple syrup. "It's something to do at the end of winter that signifies springtime," he says of the syrup-making. "If you have maple trees, you might use what you have. And if you like being out in the woods, that's where you want to be on a beautiful day."
"I love making maple syrup," says Anne Sierigk of Hawk Meadow Farm in Reynoldsville. "I was thinking about how much I love being outside this time of year just as I was going out before daylight in 18 degree weather. Of course, it may not be fun for everyone." Sierigk is a small producer--last year the farm's production was 14 gallons--but she's building towards greater production because it fits in with other aspects of the farm.
"A few years ago we had a lot of firewood left over from our locust-post business, so we had sustainably harvested wood, and it's scrap. I like going to each tree to empty each bucket; it a lot of lifting and a lot of stoking the fire, but that's what I enjoy about it," she says. Some of her syrup is sold at farmer's markets, some enjoyed by her family. "I love pancakes, and I always freeze a few gallons of sap to use for iced tea in the summer. Sometimes when we're making syrup, I'll dip a mug in the boiling sap and add a teabag and a little rum. It's good in maple-braised butternut squash, on oatmeal--you can't go wrong with maple syrup. And did you know it's a superfood? It ranks up there with broccoli and salmon."
According to, maple syrup contains compounds renowned for disease prevention and healing.
"This is our earliest season ever," says Diane Melvaney, whose Tug Hollow Farm in Burdett is producing maple syrup again after a one-year hiatus. Last year, when Diane and her husband Neal snow-shoed into the woods to begin tapping trees, the high snow covered many places where they wanted to tap and the temperature was too cold to unroll tubing. A week later, Diane broke her leg, and they decided to scrap that season. "You can't second-guess Mother Nature," Diane says now. "We started February first, placing about 125 taps; we had a marvelous run that whole first week, the sap was running like crazy, then it stopped with the cold weather and now it's perked up again."
"So far, so good--we're way ahead of last year, and it's pleasanter because there's no snow," says Jerry Crainey of Cayuta. It took him about two days to tap in 631 spile [or spigots], and he hopes to make about 100 gallons of syrup this year. The work involved in making syrup spans about five months for him, including equipment maintenance. Asked how he knows the sap has turned into syrup, he has a scientific answer as well as a craftsman's approach. Crainey explains syrup happens when the temperature of the boiling sap is 219 degrees and the sugar content is about 66 percent. He uses a hydrometer to measure sugar content, and checks the temperature frequently with a thermometer. "But there's no set rule to everything, it's like cooking, it's very labor intensive and there's a lot of art involved," he says.
Maintaining clean equipment is paramount, which means using a lot of hot water because the syrup will otherwise absorb the smells of cleaning products. "I enjoy the challenge," Crainey says. "Every day it's something different."
"Yesterday we finished more than five gallons of syrup," says Marcia Bauchle of Straight-Way Farm in Burdett, who makes syrup with her husband Dennis. Taken by surprise by the early season, they tapped their trees in mid-February. Their annual goal is 40 gallons, and like other maple producers, they'll keep going until the trees bud. Then the sap changes, no longer offering the sweet taste that makes great maple syrup.
Dan Weed, owner of Glen Maple products in Reading, grew up on a sugar bush in New Hope. He and his father Don Weed of Schoolhouse Sugarbush are considered by many to be the most knowledgable and experienced maple sugar producers in the Finger Lakes--as well as possibly the largest--and have served as mentors to many. "We tap about 4,000 trees [in Schuyler County]," says Dan Weed. "We started around the first of January, then the first day we saw sap was the ninth." He taps a variety of maple trees including hard maple, soft maple and Norway maples. "We basically tap all maples, it all makes a good product," he says.
Maple syrup is a year-round operation for the Weeds, because "there's always something to repair or improve that needs attention," he says. This time of year is particularly intense because "The sooner it turns from sap into syrup, the better the product," he explains. This can mean getting up early in the morning and staying awake until the boiling is finished--even if that's early the following morning. He makes about 1,800 gallons of syrup each year from his Schuyler County trees--and also helps his father at New Hope. "Every batch of syrup is slightly different," he says. "It's a matter of producer technique, the sugar content of the sap, all things factor into what the flavor might be, as well as a lot of things we don't control." That said, very few consumers would notice the difference between this year's maple syrup and what they were eating on their pancakes last year.
Because the Weed farms are maple-focused, they have discovered many additional ways to use the unique flavor of maple syrup. At least one area brewer--Weed won't name names--regularly gets bulk syrup to use in a seasonally flavored beer. The weeds also use their maple syrup for sugar cream candy, maple popcorn, maple hot dogs and more. Dan Weed says this creates a lot of interest in maple products, but time constraints limit their exposure.
Will this be a good maple syrup year? Producers are wary of making predictions this early in the season. "Ask me in May," some said--the others suggested asking in July.

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