Tuesday, February 10
The roads are clear and the power is restored, but one aftershock from December's devastating ice storm has yet to be felt — as much as 50 percent of Berkshire County's maple syrup industry could be damaged.

As syrup makers clean up fallen limbs and trees in the forests where their maple stands are located, they're evaluating the extent to which their crop has been impacted by the Dec. 11-12 ice storm.

One official said the damage could impact the industry for years to come.

"The maple folks I've been talking with here have close to 50 percent of their taps affected by the storm," said Aimee Thayer, executive director of the USDA's Berkshire County Farm Service Agency. "The trees are cracked, broken or snapped right off, therefore, they can't tap them.

"And it will be another couple of years before they know if the trees are going to survive," she continued.

For the maple sugar industry, the damage could reduce sap collection, resulting in lower yields of syrup. If that happens, maple sugar sales for farmers would diminish, and consumer prices would go up — another incremental blow to the local economy.

To help with rebuilding syrup production capabilities, the U.S. Farm Bureau has released $300,000 in "cost-share" money to help maple sugar makers in Massachusetts.

"In this situation, it's the maple producers that are probably going to get the brunt of the cost-share money in Berkshire County," Thayer said. "The folks who were the hardest hit were closer to our eastern border — in Florida, Adams, a little in Cheshire, Otis, Sandisfield and Becket."

According to Tom McCrumm, director of the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association and proprietor of South Face Farm in Ashfield, maple stands in higher elevations — more than 1,400 above sea level — were hit hardest.

The foremost challenge for maple farmers right now is gaining access to their maple trees. Up to an inch of ice brought down thousands of trees, leaving debris in the paths leading to the maples.

It's a daunting task: Most of the sugar-producing maples are located deep in the woods and can only be reached on foot or via snowmobile.

"There were thousands of trees downed, tipped over, uprooted, broken off and limbs stripped off. It was just all over the place," McCrumm said.

The limbs and trees also brought down the sap lines and collectors, which need to be repaired or replaced, he said.

All this work needs to happen quickly: Tree-tapping time arrives in late February and early March.

"Maples take it on the nose in a storm like this," Thayer said. "And when it happens so close to their tapping season, it really presents a problem."

To reach Scott Stafford: sstafford@berkshireeagle.com, or (413) 664-4995