Photo Gallery | Maple harvest season begins early in Berkshire County
HANCOCK — What could turn out to be the warmest winter on record has had little effect on the maple industry of Berkshire County, other than to get the farmers out to tap the trees and fire up the boilers earlier than usual.
And with the volume harvested so far, this season could turn out pretty well, according to Missy Leab, president of the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association and co-owner of Ioka Valley Farm in Hancock.
"Right now we're ahead of schedule," Leab said. "We've boiled 10 times so far, which is more than usual for this point in the season."
She said the intermittent cold and warmth of this winter has resulted in the freezing and thawing cycle that causes the sap to run in the maple stands to occur earlier than usual. So instead of tapping the trees in early March, maple producers in the Berkshire County region started tapping and harvesting in mid-to-late February, with one farmer tapping as early as January.
"It's an earlier start to the season in our area, and the long range forecast looks good for some more freezing and thawing to come," Leab said. "So we see a lot more boiling ahead."
Once a tree is tapped, and the thaw starts, the sap starts rising up through the tree with the tap diverting some of it into the harvest hoses or buckets. It comes out with the consistency of water, and once boiled down yields on average about one gallon of syrup for every 40 gallons of sap. But once the trees are tapped, the clock starts ticking as the taps only last about six weeks.
In Massachusetts, it is considered the first agricultural harvest of the year. Last year, the state had a record yield of about 75,000 gallons of maple syrup, which generated well over the annual average of $3 million in sales of maple syrup in Massachusetts.
"So far it's been a good season," said Winton Pitcoff, coordinator of the MMPA. "Earlier in February and again last week we had lots of nice sap flowing."
Pitcoff noted that every winter brings different challenges to the maple harvesters, so being adaptable is part of the trade.
"Right now we're ahead of where we've been at this point in the past," he said. "So what we need now is colder nights and warmer days. Then we could keep boiling well into March and have a really good season."
MMPA is officially celebrating the beginning of the sugaring season with an event at 10 a.m. Friday at Stonegate Farm in Conway. The association will also celebrate Maple Weekend on March 19-20, when maple lovers are encouraged to visit a sugarhouse to learn about maple sugaring, or eat at a restaurant that's featuring menu items made with pure Massachusetts maple syrup.
Locally, Hopkins Memorial Forest in Williamstown will hold its annual Maplefest celebration from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. March 12.
This annual event gives visitors a chance to observe and take part in the process of producing maple syrup, from the tree to the bottle. Participants will be able to visit the sugar house and see the boiling process, see the finishing and bottling of the final product, and try their hands at tapping a tree and gathering sap.
According to Carla Turner, who owns and operates Turner Farms in South Egremont with her husband, Paul, their maple stands were tapped last month and have been pumping plenty of sap.
"We're very pleased with our season at the moment, and we're only halfway through," she said. "At this point we're doing better than we did on our worst year ever, and that's always a good thing. So it seems like we got in at the right time, and the forecast looks really great."