PERU — Punxatawney Phil didn’t see his shadow on Groundhog Day, but here in Western Maine, spring is beckoning.
Maple tree sap is starting to run — and several syrup farmers are tapping into it earlier than usual.
“I’m surprised it’s running so well,” Cliff Thurston of Peru said Saturday morning.
He and his brother, Jim Thurston, were busy placing the rest of their 1,700 sap taps, after putting in 800 on Friday.
The Thurstons run the syrup operation for their parents, Wayne and Adelia Thurston, who own the 340-acre, multi-generational Thurston Family Farm on Dickvale Road.
Jim Thurston said the sap began flowing Wednesday.
“It’s pretty early,” he said. “This is rare. It’s probably the earliest I can remember ever starting.”
Cliff Thurston credited the early start to the mild winter.
“Things didn’t get a chance to freeze up,” he said.
Eight years ago, Jim Thurston said they began tapping trees by the end of February or the first week in March.
“But we ended up missing a couple of (sap) runs, so we started tapping at February vacation, and this year, we’re not even at February vacation,” Jim Thurston said.
Rodney Hall of Hall Farms in East Dixfield, from whom the brothers buy their syrup operation equipment, said Hall Farms began tapping three weeks earlier.
By Friday afternoon, they’d placed about 4,500 taps and had about 2,000 remaining.
Hall said the sap there had yet to start running.
“I think if we continue to have warm weather through the weekend, we could make some syrup by the beginning of the week, which is a couple of weeks early,” he said.
With a mild winter, “it doesn’t take as many days for everything to warm up,” Hall said. “We can still have a lot of winter if we have a cold snap and some snow and it certainly could even be a late spring, but the way it looks right now, it’s not going to be.”
Syrup farmer Russell Black of Black Acres Farms in Wilton said the early start is frightening.
“I’m not all tapped and I’m not all ready yet, so it’s scaring me,” he said. “A lot of people are just starting to tap. It’s real early.”
He runs about 1,000 taps and is trying to get ready while building a new sap house.
“I talked to Jimmy Harvell in East Dixfield a couple of days ago and he was turning on his vacuum (sap system) on his taps and he said he’d gathered a couple hundred gallons to boil down,” Black said.
Last year’s season was a banner year for Black. He hopes the same holds true this season.
“I made syrup from places I’ve never made syrup from on the same number of taps,” he said.
Anthony J. and Irene Couture of Maple Valley Farms in Jay said Friday that their 1,900 taps are already in for their vacuum system. The sap is flowing and he’s made almost a gallon of syrup.
“Things are loosening up fast this year,” he said. “(The sap’s) not running great because the last couple of nights it really didn’t freeze, but it will probably run good tomorrow.”
Irene Couture said they began tapping maples at the end of January and finished in two weekends.
“We took advantage of it,” she said. “There was no snow in the woods then.”
They’re using new tapping spouts that have a check valve, meaning they can stay in and not dry out from sap returning into the tree by season’s end.
“We’ve done that three years with the new taps and the production is just very high from it,” Irene Couture said.
“Last year was a record year,” she said. “Two years ago, he started Feb. 17 and he went 30 days straight with the sap running every day.”
David Violette of Maple Ridge Sugar House in Turner said Friday that his taps are in, but the sap has yet to run.
“I think the ground’s still frozen around the base of the trees,” he said.
“I think people who are vacuuming are probably doing something, but I run gravity systems and I was hoping it would start this week, but maybe next week,” he said. “It is early for everybody.”