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Thursday, Mar 23, 2023

Sugar-making season gets an early start, pauses as temperatures drop

As this year’s sugar-making season begins, local producers look forward to temperatures being consistently above freezing to reach their goals for the season. 

More than just a topping for pancakes, Vermont maple syrup is the one-of-a-kind natural sweetener that enhances cocktails, desserts and numerous food dishes.

In 2022, Vermont produced over 2.5 million gallons of maple syrup, making it the top producer in the United States. The syrup is produced and processed statewide in more than 3,000 sugarhouses, according to a State of Vermont website. Producers range from family-owned operations all the way up to industrial leaders, who bring syrup to Vermonters’ tables via local stores, online shops and restaurants.

In a given maple sugaring season, farmers tap maple trees to collect saps, then boil the saps to produce maple sugar and syrup. 

Before the short sugaring season, which typically lasts from late February through early April, sugar makers prepare by cutting and splitting firewood and stringing tubing in the sugarbush — the plot of sugar maples. For the sugaring season to begin, a freeze-thaw cycle is required. The cycle occurs when temperatures drop below freezing at night, enabling the sap to freeze; then as temperatures rise the next day, the frozen sap melts and falls down the tree. This causes the tree to begin to “wake up” from the winter and prepare for spring as sap starts moving in the sapwood. 

The unusually warm temperatures early this year allowed the sugaring season to begin early for farms across the state. Lincoln, Vt.-based Twin Maple Sugarworks had their earliest gathering ever this year, beginning the sugar-making process on Feb. 15. They began boiling immediately thereafter, which was also their earliest boiling date. 

Not long after that, however, Twin Maple Sugarworks had to shut down their taps temporarily due to a sudden drop in temperatures.

When asked about the outlook for this year’s sugaring season, Don Gayle, owner of Twin Maple Sugarworks, said it is hard to tell right now, as it depends so much on the temperature.

“Forty-five degrees, no wind, sunny — that would be the perfect condition for maple sugaring. But we are just not seeing days like that,” Gayle told The Campus. 

Twin Maple Sugarworks owns 5,200 taps. Last year, they were able to process 110,000 gallons of sap and produce 1,500 gallons of syrup. That number, however, ended up being below average. 

The production in a given year depends on the length of the season and the temperatures, according to Gayle. “Last year, our sugaring started on Feb. 23, which was quite early,” Gayle said. “But after it got cold, we weren’t able to operate until March 7.” 

For Dave Folino, owner of Hillsboro Sugarworks in Starksboro, Vt., this year’s sugaring season also started especially early but did not last as they expected. Their taps started running mid-February, and they started boiling on Feb. 17; but as the temperature dropped, they were not able to continue collecting maple sap.

“The sap is basically water with a little bit of sugar in it,” Folino said. “When it drops below the freezing point, it is frozen. It won’t run until when the temperature rises to a nice 40 degrees or at least 32 degrees.”

Accordingly, despite the initial head start, Folino predicted that the season will end in the normal time frame. Because the farm is located in the mountains, Hillsboro’s sugaring season tends to  start and end later than other farms due to the greater amount of snow, woods and lower temperatures. For them, sugaring typically starts around the first week of March and ends in the middle of April.

Hillsboro Sugarworks owns 1,600 taps and typically produces 450,000 gallons of sap, 8,000 to 9,000 gallons of maple syrup every year. 

Both Twin Maple Sugarworks and Hillsboro Sugarworks have a variety of sale channels. While much of Twin Maple Sugarworks’ syrup is sold right outside the sugar house, they also sell at the Middlebury Farmers’ Market on Saturdays and supply a number of restaurants in town. For customers interested in placing orders online, they provide shipping services.

In addition to selling at stores in the local Starksboro area, Hillsboro Sugarworks also supplies maple syrup to the town of Middlebury. They sell through the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-Op, a couple of restaurants in town, and are also the supplier for the syrup that is provided at the college and sold in the bookstore.

Both Twin Maple Sugarworks and Hillsboro Sugarworks will participate in the Spring Maple Open House this year. Every year, during the sugaring season, the Vermont Sugar Maker’s Association invites sugar makers in the state to open their doors to visitors. This year, the Maple Open House will take place over two weekends in late March and early April. According to the Spring Maple Open House preview, sugar makers, including Twin Maple and Hillsboro, are excited to have visitors take a tour around the sugarhouse, watch the boiling process and have a fresh taste of the pure maple syrup. 

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