By Ryan Trapani
Maple sugaring season 2014; it’s neither ended nor really begun, and that’s unusual around these parts for the fourth week in March. My sugarbush – stand of trees tapped for maple sugaring – is located in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains. Its elevation hovers just beneath 1,000 feet and the trees face towards the southeast where they meet the sun’s warm morning rays. A sugarbush like this one begins earlier than others located on colder north-facing slopes or at higher elevations of 1500 or 2500 feet. Although it might start running earlier than others, it quits earlier too. In the last two years these trees had been fully running with sap by early to mid-February. One old-timer in the area said he normally looks to tap between Lincoln’s Birthday (February 12th) and President’s Day (February 17th).
Tapping trees early in February or even in January is not unheard of in the upper elevations either, but is rarer since winter seems to hang around up there longer. The first place I tapped trees was in Frost Valley, Claryville, Ulster County; its elevation was 2,100 feet. I remember the maple producers had already taken down their taps in Margaretville (elevation 1400 feet) by the end of March, while we were still boiling sap into the second week of April. The season starts later in Claryville, but quits later too.
Last year – in the foothills – the sap began running on-time, as the old-timer had predicted; they kept going hard until the middle of March too. I only had 50 taps, but these trees averaged an astonishing ½ gallon of syrup per tap; average amounts are normally 1 quart. It was a banner year for most producers all over the state of New York as well.
This year is different. It is now the end of March and I have only 1/5 of the syrup I had by the middle of March last year. Winter isn’t giving up the fight with spring very easily. The day-time temperatures have not been warm enough to induce sap flow. When the temperatures have been warm enough, they unfortunately have been preceded by extremely cold nights, which also has delayed sap flow.
The season is not over yet, and there does look like some good days ahead in the forecast for maple sugaring. One might be optimistic and believe that a late beginning may be compensated by a prolonged season into April. Anything can happen. However, two aspects spell the end to a season. One is the buds. Trees seem to be influenced by both temperature and light duration. The temperatures may not be sending signals to break dormancy yet, but the longer days found in late March and early April often do. Once the buds swell, the sucrose in maple sap is converted to starch and imparts a bitter taste known as buddy sap; this sap is no longer worth boiling down into syrup. The second aspect is night-time temperature or the lows. This year sap flow has been mostly constrained by the highs not being warm enough. However, if night time temperatures are above freezing the trees may run for twenty-hours, but will dry out if a freezing night is not encountered; the freezing and thawing is what creates the pressure inside the tree and drives sap flow. When it gets this late in the season, colder nights can quickly switch to warmer nights and a quick spring can arrive, killing the season. We’ll see, but at least we have had some sap to make syrup from, and that’s more than we had before. Good luck. www.catskillforest.org