Come Maine Maple Sunday on March 23, don’t expect to pay what you did last year for a pint of syrup. Deep snow, cold temperatures, soaring fuel prices, and high syrup demand worldwide are expected to drive up prices.

Two bad syrup-production years in a row, coupled with increased demand, have combined to deplete Maine and Canadian syrup surpluses totaling 60 million pounds, said R. Michael Smith, president of the Maine Maple Producers Association.

“Prices are going up at least 20 to 30 percent,” said Smith, a maple sugar farmer who owns and operates Mike’s Maple House in Winthrop. “We used to have a surplus of syrup and that’s all gone after two bad years – 60 million pounds – and that’s what’s driving the price, that and oil and everything else going up. Most of the syrup’s already been sold. … Maple sales worldwide increased by 10 to 15 percent each year.”

Rising oil costs also have driven up the price of sap tubing lines and plastic syrup jugs, both of which are derived from petroleum.

Like Smith, maple sugar farmers Ed Jillson of Jillson’s Farm Stand in Sabattus and Roger Jackson of Jackson’s Sugarhouse in Oxford said Tuesday that they buy extra syrup from larger producers in northern Maine to keep up with the demand on Maine Maple Sunday.

“There’s so much demand, we can never make enough,” Jillson said. “The United States makes 14 percent of the world’s maple syrup and Canada makes the rest of it. Maine only makes 4 percent of it.”

“You take them two bad years and it hurt. We need a good year this year. I’m hoping the snow goes off slow, but I don’t know. It’s got a lot of water in it,” Smith said.

Deep snow is also wreaking havoc with maple farmers who rely on gravity feed and the weather to start sap running from trees to the sugaring house.

“The deep snow makes it hard walking on snowshoes. I don’t know what it will be like when I start collecting. Lugging two 5-gallon pails will be pretty hard with three to four feet of snow in the woods,” Jillson said.

Just to tap trees this month, farmers have to squat down on their snowshoes to snow level rather than try do it at waist level, because once the snow melts, their taps and buckets would be too high to reach, said David Fuller, an agriculture and natural resources expert with the University of Maine at Farmington Cooperative Extension Service.

Like many other maple farmers who run lines from tree taps to collection sources, they’ve all had to dig lines out of up to five feet of snow. Others have also had to cut away downed limbs and trees to free lines.

“We haven’t had a year like this for a long time. The best year was when we had no snow,” Jillson said.

Still, of his 1,200 taps, he was 90 percent done as of Tuesday and expects to complete the rest in the next two days, weather permitting. Then it’s just a waiting game for daytime temperatures in the low 40s and nights in the low 20s without a wind. That’s when sap runs best.

“It was 6 degrees this morning and the trees just don’t care for that,” Fuller said.

Jackson said he’s spent the past 10 days digging his sap lines out of 4 to 5 feet of snow on Streaked Mountain and cutting away dead limbs. He expects to start work on his 1,500 taps Wednesday.

“It’s hard going,” he said. “Hopefully, the snow will settle. In my experience, if we had a good heavy snowpack with little to no frost in the ground, once the snow breaks away, and as long as we don’t get a lot of rain, we’ll get some good (sap) runs. But as soon as trees get to budding, then we’ve lost the syrup, because budding syrup tastes real bitter.”

Because Maine’s syrup season from March through April 15 is so weather-dependent, it’s difficult to predict good or bad seasons.

“I imagine that by this weekend – looking at the … forecast – if it’s halfway right, we should be pretty busy. We should be able to boil (sap). But what we do now depends on Mother Nature, and she hasn’t helped us the last three years. But I’ve got a feeling that just as soon as (the sap) starts, it’s going to go,” Jillson said.

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