What it’s all about -- bottles of maple syrup for sale at Sweet Brook Farm in Williamstown.
What it’s all about -- bottles of maple syrup for sale at Sweet Brook Farm in Williamstown. (Caroline Bonnivier Snyder / Berkshire Eagle Staff)

Local maple sugaring enthusiasts have hit a sweet spot in the current weather pattern.

The warmer temperatures during the day, followed by below-freezing nights, are ideal to begin the arduous task of maple sugaring -- extracting sap from sugar maple trees, gathering it in buckets, then carrying the buckets away to have the sap boiled down to its sugary essence to produce maple syrup.

"The last week or so has been perfect," said Winton Pitcoff, the coordinator of the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association, a nonprofit organization based in Plainfield. "It's more of the weather than the time of year -- warmer temperatures in the day, and cold nights."

Maple sugaring is already in full effect in the Berkshires and other parts of the state, because of the recent flip-flopping temperatures between day and night. According to reports, Massachusetts maple producers extract 50,000 gallons of maple syrup from trees each season. Maple sugaring usually lasts for about six weeks beginning in late February.

As temperatures climb upward, so does the sap inside the trees. It travels toward the tree's limbs and buds, making it easy for maple miners to drill a hole into the tree and extract the sap using a series of tubes and buckets.

"It doesn't harm the tree if it's done in an appropriate way," Pitcoff said.

Not only is the recent weather, but so is the area. In the Northeast, particularly the Berkshires, sugar maple trees are on the spread for the variety of people who take to maple sugaring this time of year -- from farmers looking to supplement the off-season, to many other types of residents looking to keep up a Northeastern tradition.

"It's a part of our heritage, part of our culture," said Paul Catanzaro, the extension assistant professor of forest ecology and conservation at UMass-Amherst. "It's certainly an agricultural pursuit, but when you look at all the different people who do it and why it's done, it's less about money and more about connecting with nature."

To coincide with Gov. Deval Patrick's proclamation on Monday of March as Maple Syrup Month in Massachusetts, celebrations were held throughout the state, but were behind the jump-start many have had on sugaring due to the favorable weather. On Monday, the Red Bucket Sugar Shack in Worthington had its ceremonious tapping of a maple tree. Several events are also scheduled in the Berkshires throughout next week.

Maple sugaring is "a labor of love" for Rob Leab at Ioka Valley Farms in Hancock, he said in a phone interview with The Eagle.

Beth Phelps, of Sweet Brook Farm in Williamstown, shows off the final product -- maple syrup. Maple sugaring is ‘a part of our heritage, part of our
Beth Phelps, of Sweet Brook Farm in Williamstown, shows off the final product -- maple syrup. Maple
sugaring is ‘a part of our heritage, part of our culture,’ says UMass assistant professor Paul Catanzaro. (Caroline Bonnivier Snyder / Berkshire Eagle Staff)
In the background, the boiling mechanisms used to boil the sap into maple syrup were loud, and Leab had to postpone the interview because he was running the gantlet to get his sap boiled into maple syrup. Sap can't store overnight or it will go through reverse osmosis, Leab said.

He said he has collected about 3,000 gallons of sap. About 40 or 50 gallons of sap is needed to produce one gallon of maple syrup, making the efforts labor-intensive.

"I think it's going to be a good season based on the winter we've had, and the snow we've had," Leab said. "Last year, I thought we might bank out all right, and it ended up being 70 degrees in the middle of March."

Maple sugaring has been a part of Massachusetts since before even the Pilgrims landed in 1620. Today, it's done mostly in small operations, and is a way to celebrate the end of winter with family and friends.

But it's too strenuous an activity for Catanzaro of UMass-Amherst.

"It's brutal," he said. "It's a lot of work, and when the run hits to get the sap boiled, it's very intense."

To reach Adam Poulisse:
apoulisse@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6214.
On Twitter: @BE_Poulisse

If you go ...

Upcoming maple sugaring activities scheduled in the Berkshires.

What: Observe and learn how to make homemade syrup and taste-testing.

When: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Saturday

Where: Hopkins Memorial Forest, the intersection of Bulkley Street and Northwest Hill Road, Williamstown

Cost: Free and open to the public.

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What: Tour of Ioka Valley Farms, conducted by Wild Oats Market. Tour the grounds, sample syrup and learn about the different grades of syrup.

When: 10:30 a.m., Saturday

Where: Ioka Valley Farm, 3475 Route 43, Hancock

Cost: Free and open to the public.

Registration: (413) 458-8060.

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What: Berkshire Grown will host seven local, renowned chefs at this year's March Maple Dinner, consisting of a maple-inspired five-course dinner and a live auction.

When: 6 p.m., March 18

Where: Cranwell Resort, 55 Lee Road, Lenox.

Cost: Tickets are $100 for Berkshire Grown members, and $125 for non-members.

Reservation: (413) 528-0041