Short and sweet? Warmth triggers early but perhaps brief start for sugaring

By Susan Smallheer
Staff Writer

Art Krueger and his crew started tapping their maple trees in January, determined not to lose the first major sap run of the 2018 season.

Krueger said last week the sap had been running like a stream for the past couple of days, inundating his Button Hill Road sugarhouse in Shrewsbury with sap from 2,300 taps, and he started boiling.

“I’m hoping it freezes up so we get a break,” he said.

Krueger said when he first started sugaring about 30 years ago, it used to be that he would start boiling around Town Meeting Day. The past couple of years, he’s tapped in mid-January, so the Krueger-Norton Sugarhouse would be ready for the first run. This year he had enough sap to boil on Feb. 15.

“Anybody who’s serious about sugaring is boiling today,” he said.

Krueger’s anecdotal evidence is backed up by the state’s leading maple researcher, Dr. Tim Perkins of the University of Vermont’s Proctor Maple Research Center.

Perkins said he had been tracking the increasingly early start to sugaring for the past 15 years.

“Part of it is climate change, and part of it is technology,” said Perkins, reached at the Proctor Center’s own sugarhouse in Underhill Center.

“The spring season is happening earlier, and it’s transitioning to summer faster,” he said.

Temperatures soared into the 70s in some parts of Vermont last week, but the warm spell isn’t enough to break the dormancy of maple trees and cause permanent damage to the 2018 sugar season.

Perkins said, with climate change, the winter-to-summer season is more compressed and coming earlier, and that’s having an effect on sugaring, but so far it hasn’t seemed to affect overall production.

Morgan Bowen checks the gravity of the syrup being produced at Krueger-Norton Sugarhouse in Shrewsbury last week.

He said technology such as improved tubing and vacuum systems allow for an earlier start, and also lead to higher yields.

“We tap mid-January just because the seasons have changed so much over the years. The sap ran fairly decent in mid-February,” said Ryan Mahar of Mahar Maple Farm in Middletown Springs. “We were ready for it.”

Mahar, who works as a physical therapist in addition to his sugaring operation, said it seems like sugaring is starting six weeks earlier than in years past.

“We started last week. Everybody is scrambling to tap their trees and get going,” he said.

Amanda Voyer, of the Vermont Sugarmakers Association, said she expected a good number of the state’s sugarmakers were boiling, but the expected colder temperatures will “cut it off pretty quickly.”

Voyer said if this marks the beginning of the maple season, production will match 2017 and 2016.

While it is too soon to know what 2018 will bring, boiling began right around the same time last year, and sugarmakers started tapping in late January and early February.

“This year seems to follow that trend,” she said. “I’m definitely seeing pictures on social media.”

Voyer said sugarmakers seem to be taking the changes in stride.

“They are adapting to the changes and getting into the woods earlier,” she said.