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Slow as molasses: Low temps hampering maple sap

Saturday, March 08, 2014 - Updated: 4:08 AM


Upstate New Yorkers can attest to a long, cold and unruly winter season this year.

But no one would like warmer conditions to arrive more than maple syrup producers gearing up for Maple Weekend, and the events that follow.

"I'm sure it will warm up by April," said Clifford Nightingale, who owns a sugarbush farm in Galway. "I am hoping it will be a late finish, because it has been a late winter."

Maple Weekend is an annual event put on by the New York State Maple Producers Association. This year, it will take place across the state on March 22 and 23 and also on March 29 and 30, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day.

The weather is putting a damper on preparations, though. In order for a sugarbush farmer to produce syrup, Nightingale said temperatures must drop overnight, but warm up the following day to thaw out the sap.

The best weather for sap is daytime temperatures in the low 40s, and nighttime lows in the 20s.

But it's been colder than usual, and many producers, like Nightingale, say they haven't been able to get any sap yet.

National Weather Service Meteorologist Ian Lee said temperatures are running three to five degrees below average.

Spring is right around the corner, but Lee said it is difficult to predict whether or not temperatures will warm up.

That's a tough forecast for one of the state's biggest industries. According to a press release, the state currently ranks second nationwide in maple production, second only to Vermont.

New York accounts for 18 percent of the nation's maple syrup output with 574,000 gallons produced last year.

During last year's season, the state's maple producers utilized 2.2 million taps, which is reportedly the largest number of taps since 1949.

According to a 2010 Maple Census, Montgomery County had 13 producers and more than 60,000 taps. There was no data for Fulton County in that Census, but the one from 2005 says there were 11 producers and 10,527 taps.

Though recent weather conditions have left Nightingale with barely any sap to draw in, he is unfazed by the pressure to have his farm prepared for his busiest time of the month.

"We take what we get," Nightingale said.

Over the next two weeks, he will work on tapping the remainder of his trees, and get his sugar shack in order before crowds of locals and tourists gather at his facility.

"[The sap] will run a day when it thaws," Nightingale said.

He said sap is similar to water because it solidifies in cooler temperatures and melts when exposed to heat.

In other words -- Mother Nature has everything to do with it.

Nightingale's maple farm stretches across 30 acres of land where 2,200 maple trees are tapped and drained through 11 miles of plastic pipeline.

Last March, Nightingale said he made more than 900 gallons of syrup. On average, his farm takes in roughly 700 gallons.

"Last year was an exceptionally good year for maple distributors," Nightingale said.

During Maple Weekend, he said his farm attracts close to 1,000 tourists and residents who travel to his sugar shack to learn about the maple syrup process and try the products.

In addition to the syrup, Nightingale's wife Sally makes maple covered peanuts, maple candies and maple cream.

Nightingale's interest in the maple business began as a young boy. He said he loves spending time in the woods and can instinctively tell a maple tree apart from another.

"You just know," he said. "I don't ever think about it."

His farm uses plastic piping and a vacuum system to help draw sap from his tree.

Besides the vacuum, gravity's natural pull helps the liquid plummet down the hill, said Nightingale.

Glen Henry, owner of the Paradise Sugar House in Mayfield, said he tapped 300 of his trees this season and is waiting for the cold spell to pass.

"When it comes you want to be ready for it I guess," Henry said.

Henry gathers syrup from maple trees the "old fashion way." He taps each tree and collects the sugary liquid in metal buckets.

On average, Henry pulls in about 75 gallons a year. Although he was aware of Maple Weekend, he was not promoting the affair in particular.

He expects an uptick in tours and sales this time of year regardless of the weekend tradition.

"The sugar house is kind of a gathering place, a lot of people stop by to help and see how it is going. It's a busy spot this time of year, usually," Henry said.


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