NEWRY — Expecting the sap season to start Friday or Saturday, Bruce S. Pierce began tapping trees Thursday afternoon at his and his wife Suzanne’s Goose Eye Farm.

Their daughter, Hannah, 10, helped hang buckets under the taps. Pierce and his neighbor, Alan Fleet, own and operate A&B Maple Syrup at 1014 Sunday River Road.

They collect sap from their 150 taps in buckets and make 12 to 15 gallons of syrup the old-fashioned way. Pierce said he still uses his grandfather’s wooden sap buckets and usually relies on his grandfather’s advice for determining when the season starts.

“The rule was, back then, you didn’t start until after town meeting, which was the second something in March,” Pierce said. “But the weather’s changed. We’ve boiled in February before.”

During a warm week in January, the sap started flowing before the cold returned and shut it down, he said.

“Alan said it was running when he tapped today in certain places where the sun hits,” Pierce said. “I drilled into one tree out here today and it was still frozen solid, so it’s hard telling not knowing, but they’re predicting tomorrow, Saturday and Sunday maybe being OK.”

Maine’s sap season normally runs four to six weeks. In 2012, for some farmers, the season began in January. For others, it lasted two weeks because record heat brought the buds, curtailing sap production in mid-March.

2013 was a much better year. The season ran from March 4 to April 12. Day and night temperatures were so warm that sap flowed seemingly nonstop, at least for Joe Gould of Wilton, a new commercial tapper. 

Last year, Gould and his wife Laura, their children and family members installed 8,300 taps and new sap lines on more than 100 acres.

After back-to-back open winters, this year seems like an anomaly. Winter started in November and weeks of sub-zero temperatures driven by a polar vortex have continued each month into March, delaying sap flows and money from customers wanting fresh syrup.

Lyle Merrifield, owner of Merrifield Farm in Gorham, believes this season will be a return to normal. Sap season for the southern part of the state is a week behind schedule, he said Thursday afternoon.

“For western and northern Maine, it’s not uncommon to be making syrup in another week or two,” said Merrifield, president of the Maine Maple Producers Association board of directors.

“Looking at the big picture — and you have to with anything agricultural — over the last 10 to 15 years, we were not crazy off the mark,” he said. “But in the last three to four years, the sap flowed too early. I mean, four years ago, we were tapping in the middle of February in our T-shirts and shorts. It was that warm.”

Those earlier-than-normal seasons have created a false sense of when the season should begin, Merrifield said.

Some sap-tappers from mid-Maine and down already had intermediate to moderate flows, but no big runs yet, he said. That could change this weekend.

Merrifield said it usually takes a couple of warm days to get the season going.

Mike Kistner, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Gray, said Thursday that sap should start flowing this weekend.

“We’ve got a pretty good stretch of temperatures coming,” he said. “Friday’s high temps will be in the low to mid 30s, but Saturday’s the exception, with temperatures in the 40s, and Sunday will be about freezing, but still decent.”

Following that, high temperatures will be at the freezing mark or just above for next week, Kistner said.

“After Sunday, it will probably just button up, but we’ve had years like that when we’ve tapped and had a great run for a week, and then it freezes up and we don’t have anything, and then it opens up again,” Pierce said.

Merrifield said he expects sap farmers will have a full season “once it gets going.”

To illustrate this, he said sap-tappers look for what they call “welling” around tree trunks. That’s when sap starts to rise in the trees, which draw heat from warming temperatures and melt the snow around their trunks. That hasn’t happened yet, Merrifield said.

Once the season starts, he said, the biggest crunch for sap-tappers will be making syrup while trying to get ready for the annual spring rite of Maine Maple Sunday on March 23. That’s when 88 syrup producers across the state will open their sugar shacks to educate the public while offering samples and selling syrup.

Pierce said he and Fleet participate in Maine Maple Sunday, despite being a small operation. They enjoy showing the public how syrup was made in the past, long before vacuum pumps and miles of tubing strung from tap to tap to the sugar house.

If there isn’t a sudden warm-up this month, Merrifield said, “We still have the makings for a very normal season.”

Geraldine Richards of Mountain Top Maple Syrup in Houghton said Wednesday that they began installing taps and repairing lines in December.

For the past two weeks, they’ve been adding more taps and running new line, she said. They have about 8,000 taps in, with two to three per tree.

She said sap flows hadn’t started, but they’re hoping flows begin this weekend.

“We’re doing the sap dance now for all of us,” said Richards, whose sap farm is 23 miles north of the traffic light in Mexico.

They sell their syrup at Naples Packing Co. and Black Bridge Bakery, both in Mexico, Fryewood Farm in Roxbury and Gone Loco! Cafe at No View Farm COOP in Rumford.

“We make light (grade), medium and dark if Mother Nature permits,” Richards said. “Last year, we didn’t get any light.”

A normal season would be a boon to Maine’s economy. A new study by University of Maine economist Todd Gabe that was released last month says Maine’s maple industry annually contributes about $49 million in revenue, 805 full- and part-time jobs and $25 million in wages to the state’s economy.

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