By Matt Sutkoski
Amy Yandow was tired Sunday evening and anticipating a busy week.
And that made her very happy.
She and her husband Mark run Sugartree Maple Farm on Bradley Lane in Williston. She’d just heard a forecast calling for several days of great sugaring weather.
That was a relief, since an intensely cold March made sap runs practically nonexistent until now.
The Yandows had their first boil on March 23. The nearby Comeau Family Sugarhouse managed to boil a little sap into syrup on March 15.
“It’s the latest first run we’ve ever had,” said Ann Comeau, who runs the operation with her husband Bernie.
On Sunday, the Yandows boiled sap for only the second time this year, and anticipated making about 50 gallons of syrup.
They had only one other boil, on March 23, which yielded 35 gallons. So far, they are far short of their goal of making 800 to 900 gallons this season.
April had better be good.
“I’m definitely a little nervous,” Yandow said. But not that nervous. If the first half of April brings favorable weather, they’ll be OK.
March was anything but favorable. It proved to be the fourth coldest March on record, according to the National Weather Service in South Burlington.
Only 12 afternoons in March cracked the freezing mark, and most of those, just barely. You want it to get into the 40s to get a decent sap run.
The woods in the Yandows’ sugarbush were still knee deep in snow last weekend. Even on those rare days when temperatures reached 40, the sap lines were buried in snow, thus refrigerated, and not producing much.
“This is pretty odd,” Yandow said.
But it’s not too late for a successful season.
“Historically, in most years, a majority of the syrup is made in April, so while we may have hoped to make more syrup in March, we’re still in our traditional sugaring time,” said Matthew Gordon, executive director of the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers’ Association.
Comeau noted the deep snow on the ground could work to sugarmakers’ advantage in April. Sometimes, this time of year, temperatures can get excessively warm, up toward 70 degrees, which would end the season.
But the snow cover is refrigerating the ground, the trees and the sap lines, which could help extend the season, she said.
Yandow said she was encouraged by forecasts of daytime temperatures in the 40s and subfreezing nights this week, which is perfect for sugaring. On two recent years, the sugaring season ended April 16, so there’s time. And there’s no reason why this year’s late season can’t end in overtime as well, toward the end of April.
History is on Yandow’s side. This season might not be as late as some people think. “The perception is made more acute because we have seen some very early seasons in the past decade. That recent bias makes this year seem extra late, even though a great many sugar makers can tell you about later seasons they’ve had,” Gordon said.
Still, the cold March has already caused some damage that can’t be undone. Vermont Maple Open House Weekend was on March 22 and 23, which is an opportunity for sugar makers to welcome the public, and sell some products from the first runs of the season.
Not this year.
“On Open House Weekend, a lot of us didn’t have syrup,” Yandow said. The Yandows only had 22 gallons of syrup left from last year and managed to boil a bit of sap just before that weekend. But they still didn’t have nearly as much syrup or maple products to sell that weekend, so the Yandows lost some sales.
It will be even worse if they don’t make their goal of more than 800 gallons of syrup this year. They have regular customers they don’t want to lose. So if they fall short, they’ll have to buy syrup from other producers to satisfy demand. If that happens, there go the profits from their operation.
Even if sugar makers like the Yandows don’t make their production goals, there will still be plenty of syrup available for your pancakes and maple creemees through next year. Sugar makers in Vermont and elsewhere still have stockpiles of syrup from last year.
Another bright spot, at least in Williston, is that the December ice storm caused little, if any, damage to local sugarbushes. There was damage to maple groves in other sections of Vermont.
The Comeaus and Yandows said they aren’t sure if the weather has been getting more erratic during sugaring season. Both sugar makers point out early spring weather in Vermont is always unpredictable
“It’s been all over the map, Comeau said.
The Yandows and Comeaus each predicted the first half of April would bring frequent, heavy sap runs. It’s going to be exhausting to keep up with it, they said, but well worth it.
Ultimately, every sugaring season is a nail biting experience and producers need to learn to keep calm through odd warm spells, cold spells, or other odd weather. “It is awfully hard to stick around in this business if you get nervous about the weather,” Gordon said.
At least this season holds more promise than 2012, when what was by far the warmest March on record brought temperatures to near 80 by the third week of the month, prematurely ending a season with paltry sap runs.
“You never know what’s going to happen,” Comeau said.