October 1, 2014

Sugar low: Warm weather leads to shorter maple syrup season

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By Luke Baynes

Observer staff

Mike Isham, owner of the Isham Family Farm on Oak Hill Road, stands beside his evaporator, which is used to boil sap into maple syrup. Due to warm weather, Isham’s boiling season ended prematurely on March 20. (Observer photo by Luke Baynes)

The end of winter coincided with the end of maple syrup production last week, as 80-degree temperatures cut short a sugaring season that typically runs through mid-April.

While local sugarers can remember years where there was little snowfall, there was a general consensus among Willistonians in the maple business that the mildness of this year’s sugaring season is without precedent.

“Talking to my dad, he said there’s been years like this when there was no snow all winter, but it never warmed up like this,” said Mike Isham, the fifth generation owner of the Isham Family Farm, established in 1871.

Isham said he typically produces 500-600 gallons of maple syrup annually. This year, he made 247 gallons.

But Isham explained that fickle temperatures are part of the business, and that the warmer the weather, the darker the grade of syrup produced.

“Early in the season there’s a lot of ground cover and snow and the weather’s colder so the sap stays colder,” Isham said. “It’s colder coming to the sugarhouse and it stays colder in the sugarhouse, so you have less bacteria. Then as the weather gets warmer, you get more bacteria in the sap, and so the sap gets darker.”

Although warm weather can produce excellent syrups – from table-grade “A” dark amber to grade “B” syrup used for cooking – sugarer Mark Yandow said his last boil of the year on March 21 produced grade “C” (aka “buddy syrup”), not for table consumption.

“I knew we were on borrowed time,” he said.

Yandow said he produced 510 gallons of syrup this year from 3,000 taps, compared to 800 gallons last year from just 2,600 taps.

Yandow’s wife, Amy, said the lower-positioned tap holes on her family’s sugar maples told the tale of the season.

“Last year when we were tapping we were on snowshoes,” she said.

Bernie Comeau, a sugaring neighbor of the Yandows, said that bad maple crops are part of the business – just like any form of agriculture.

“I’m not crying poverty, simply because this is agriculture, and it’s totally weather-driven,” Comeau said. “We try to plan our customer base. We do some wholesale, but we try not to do so much of it that it will wipe a poor crop out.”

But Comeau added that he hopes the past winter was an anomaly – not a precursor of things to come.

“My hope is that this is just a trend and not a real global warming thing overnight,” Comeau said. “I hope it’s just a weather glitch.”

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