WILLIAMSTOWN -- It looks like the warm winter could mean a sweet season for Pete and Beth Phelps, owners of Sweet Brook Farm.
Like some of the other maple syrup producers in Berkshire County, the Phelpses tapped their maple trees early this year, by two or three weeks, hoping that the warmth would continue and sap would keep flowing through March to yield more product.
But if the warmth gives way to prolonged freezing, the season could turn sour.
"It's a crap shoot every year," said Pete Phelps. "But we felt it was so unusually warm all winter that spring could come by early March. So getting an early start might help a lot."
Sweet Brook Farm's crew of six tapped 4,400 trees on Jan.
Steve Jennings, co-owner of Jennings Brook Farm in New Ashford and maple syrup producer for nearly 40 years, tapped his sugarbush on Jan. 28.
"I've never tapped so early in my whole life," he said. "We actually produced our first syrup on Feb. 2."
Weather rules everything in the production of maple syrup. In Massachusetts, more than 200 maple syrup farmers -- about 25 in Berkshire County -- produce on average about 50,000 gallons of maple syrup every year, worth about $3 million in revenue, according to figures provided by the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association. The majority of sugarhouses are in the western end of the state. On average, it takes 40 to 45 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup.
Jeff Mason, co-owner of Red Bucket Sugar Shack in Worthington, said his crew started tapping 9,000 trees on Jan. 29, and he has made 100 gallons of maple syrup so far.
"This is highly unusual," Mason said. "Last year we started on March 3, so it's definitely coming in early."
At Ioka Valley Farm in Hancock, officials decided to wait a bit. Crews began tapping more than 6,000 trees on Sunday.
Here's the catch: The taps are only good through a few weeks before the tap holes in the trees begin to heal and the sap flow ends. If the trees are tapped too early and the taps foul before the prime flow begins, the sap yield could be low.
"If you go too early, you could lose the later end of the season, which is when the best yield comes," said Melissa Leab, one of the Ioka Valley Farm's owners. "We'll be interested in how this will play out. We hope Mother Nature will give us a long, gentle spring. Sometimes she doesn't."
"The weather being what it is, some people are tapping early and some aren't," said Winton Pitcoff, coordinator for the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association. "But the sap has been running, and some people are taking advantage of that. Whether it works out or not, you really can't tell in advance."
So far, the flow of sap has been slow, with the temperatures ranging between the teens and the 40s. Phelps said that when the temperatures fall enough at night, the lines freeze up, and it takes longer for them to thaw the next day to allow the sap to flow.
So if the temperatures at night remain in the mid-20s and rise to the upper 30s or 40s the next day, the flow could be strong.
According to Kimberly McMahon, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Albany, the cold snap headed this way over the weekend will keep temperatures in the teens and 20s until next Wednesday, when the warmer trend will return.
This weather pattern looks to remain for the coming two weeks or so, she added.
In addition to the relative warmth this winter, the lack of snow has also helped -- so far, Albany has a record low snowfall with 13.6 inches of snow. Last winter saw a total of 60.7 inches of snowfall, McMahon noted.
"No snow is good for us because we can move more freely in the woods -- we don't have to wear snowshoes," Mason said.
The warmer weather also carries some risk -- forest critters (squirrels, skunks, coyotes and bears) get an early start in their annual tradition of chewing on sap lines. Once the trees are tapped, sugarhouse crews get busy checking and repairing chewed-up sap lines.
"There's all kinds of animals out there chewing on the lines," Phelps said.
"One of the things we've noticed is that the bears are out of hibernation -- when they come out they like to chew on the [sap line] tubing," Mason said.
Meanwhile, sugarhouse crews are keeping a close eye on the thermometer and the sap lines.
"If it gets really cold, we're not going to get a thing out of it," Phelps said. "But I think we're set up for a good year."
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By the numbers
- Prime temperature for sap production: 38 to 45 degrees
- Maple syrup farmers in Massachusetts: More than 200
- Average annual production: About 50,000 gallons statewide
- Average annual revenue: $3 million
- Sap needed to make one gallon of maple syrup: Average of 40 to 45 gallons
Source: Massachusetts Maple Producers Association
A list of maple syrup producers by county; call ahead to check hours and production availability:
In Berkshire County
- Circle J. Maple Syrup, 48 Oleson Road, Florida, (413) 663-7604.
- Ioka Valley Farm, 3475 Route 43, Hancock, (413) 738-5915.
- Mill Brook Sugarhouse, New Lenox Road, Lenox, (413) 298-3473.
- Jennings Brook Farm, 83 Beach Hill Road, New Ashford, (413) 458-8438.
- Deer Run Maples, 135 Ed Jones Road, Otis, (413) 736-8189.
- Sweet Brook Farm, 580 Oblong Road, Williamstown, (413) 884-4246.
- Turner Farm Sugarhouse, 11 Philips Road, South Egremont, (413) 528-5710.
- Crystal Brook Farm, 19 Main Road, Tyringham, (413) 243-3237.
In Bennington County, Vermont
- Havoc Hill Sugarhouse, Route 7, Mad Tom Road, East Dorset, (802) 362-4136.
- Bob's Maple Shop, 591 Richville Road, Manchester Center, (802) 362-4556.
- Dutton Berry Farm, 2083 Depot St., Manchester Center, (802) 365-4168.
- Merck Forest & Farmland Center, 3270 Route 315, Rupert, (802) 394-7836.
- Mountain Valley Maple Farm, Route 153, Rupert, (802) 394-2928.
- Maple Hill Maple, 207 Maple Hill Road, Shaftsbury, (802) 375-2251.
- Mance Family Tree Farm, 217 Holliday Drive, Shaftsbury, (802) 442-5263.
In Rensselaer County, New York
- Hoffman's Sugar House, 89 Staples Road, Stephentown, (518) 733-6417.
- Kent's Sugar House, 2529 Plank Road, Berlin, (518) 658-2801.
- Mort's Maple, 112 Biitig Road, Averill Park, (518) 674-1500.