Sugar Makers Warming Up for Early Season

Carl Russell of Earthwise Farm and Forest in Bethel checks for mouse damage along his 300-tap pipeline. (Herald / Bob Eddy)

Maple sugar makers are ready for this year’s sugaring season, even as the weather warms up ahead of schedule.

Carl Russell of Earthwise Farm and Forest in Bethel spent last week tapping about 300 trees with his family. On Tuesday night they were able to boil for the first time this year.

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“Last year it got warm around this time and we missed what was probably the best run of the season,” said Russell, “but this year we were ready for it.”

Sap was flowing for Carl Russell of Earthwise Farm and Forest in Bethel this week. (Herald / Bob Eddy)

Dave Phillips from Sunny Brook Farm in Sharon was similarly excited at the prospect of having a run so early.

“In all the generations on this farm, we’ve only boiled before Town Meeting once before,” said Phillips. “It’s thrilling that we’ll have the chance to boil before the end of February this year!” Rick Wright of Bethel spent last weekend tapping close to 300 trees, of about 800 planned. Over the last few years, Wright has had to compensate for a sugaring season that’s been starting progressively earlier, he said.

“It’s absurdly early in the year to be tapping trees,” said Wright. “It’s definitely too early to really tell how things will go. But as long as it cools down again everything should be okay—and if we get another freeze, the season could even run on a more usual timeline.”

As temperatures went above 50° on Tuesday and Wednesday, Russell said the flow of sap was slowing considerably.

“Since it stayed so warm on [Tuesday night] there was barely a trickle [Wednesday] morning,” said Russell.

Besides tapping trees earlier, Russell has made another weather-related adjustment in his sugaring process.

“I used to gather all of the sap with my draft animals,” said Russell.

“But climate change is leading to more ice and more mud, which both make getting to the sugarbush with animals very difficult.”

Russell made the switch to a tubing system last year.

“It’s not my preference,” said Russell, “but I’m embracing my choice.”

Phillips has some concerns about long-term effects of weather this warm. “If this warming trend continues, it seems likely that Vermont will no longer be able to produce maple syrup.”

Phillips said that the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers’ Association has discussed the eventuality that a continually warming climate may make Vermont inhospitable to sugar maples.

But Phillips said that he is optimistic about the season this year.

“As long as it cools down again, the warm weather could even be a good thing,” said Phillips.

“Even though most of the snow in fields and along roadsides seems to be disappearing,” observed Phillips, “whenever I walk into the woods, there’s still snow on the ground. That’s a good sign that all will be well this sugaring season.”

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