May 21, 2019

Feeling sapped by the weather

Maple syrup makers say temp swings make production far from ideal

Jacob DeRochie/contributing photographer

Tom Herting explains how maple sap flows through the blue sap line into a holding tank at his farm in Cortlandville. Herting just finished tapping trees this weekend and plans to start his maple syrup season soon.

Tim Custer began tapping trees around Jan. 15 in preparation of a snow storm. Two weeks later, he was finished with the 14,500 taps.

The payoff — around 600 gallons of syrup, boiled in four separate sessions, so far this season.

However, the weather has not been ideal, producers agree.

For maple sap to flow, temperatures need to be below freezing at night and above 40 degrees during the day. “Every week it changes drastically,” said Custer, of Custer Maple in Cuyler.

Jack Powers, owner of Happy Jack’s Maple Syrup in Locke, hopes temperatures into March don’t turn 60 and stay. He wants to see a syrup season like the traditional ones — sap running and boiled in March and April, not the January of the past several years.

Powers has produced around 400 gallons of sap since January.

New York’s maple industry hit a 74-year record in 2018, producing 806,000 gallons of syrup, a 50 percent increase in the past five years, according to the governor’s office last year. However, the number of taps statewide continued to grow, to more than 2.7 million in 2018, the most since 1943. The season was also long in New York, 52 days compared with 43 in 2017.

Tom Herting, of Someday Farm in Cortlandville, just finished his taps on Saturday — around 250.

“We’re small potatoes,” Herting said.

Last year, he tapped trees around the same time only in a T-shirt. “It was a terrible way to start the season,” he said.

In the 20 years Herting has produced maple syrup, he has noticed a lousy change in weather patterns. “It’s not what it used to be,” he said.

The last three years have been terrible, with last year being his worst ever, Herting said.

Custer also said there has been a change. “Weather is drastically changing,” he said.

It’s all becoming an extreme. “Extreme hot, extreme cold, extreme dry and extreme wet,” Custer said.

Still, all three producers are looking for the same thing — a good season.

Custer said if weather continues the way it’s been — cold — then he’ll be down to boiling once a week.

Three years ago Custer began boiling in January.

“The rule book of maple syrup is out the window, gone,” he said about the last five years.

Climatecentral.org, a science research and reporting group that has done work on the science and effects of climate change, has examined winter temperature data from 244 weather stations across the U.S., from 1970 to 2018.

The data collected was then used to create linear regression analysis which has shown a rise in temperature by 1 degree at 91 percent of the stations. Besides the weather, Custer noticed another change this year.

On Feb. 2, he boiled his first batch of sap. It contained 0.9 percent in sugar. It took 95 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.

Two percent of sugar content is normal, Custer said. It usually takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.

“We were less than half that,” he said.

Since the first boil, Custer’s sap has seen an increase in sugar — 1.3 percent, almost 70 gallons of sap for one gallon of syrup. “It is getting sweeter as time goes on,” he said.

As for how the season will go — producers won’t know until the season is all over and they’re all hostages to the weather.

“Everything we’re used to is different now,” Custer said.

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