Maple sugar producers expect better year


Thursday March 31, 2011

PITTSFIELD -- Local maple sugar producers are hoping cold nights and warm days will make for a sweet spring.

The warm-cold combo is the perfect recipe for making maple syrup, roughly 50,000 gallons of which are produced annually in Massachusetts. Cool nights and warm days helps the sap flow, which is drawn from maple trees by tools ranging from taps to tubes and vacuums.

"We're having a great season," said Carla Turner, who co-owns Turner Farms Maple Syrup in Egremont with her husband, Paul Turner.

"Anything after last season has got to be great. When it gets too hot outside, you're done," she said, adding that a sugaring season can run from late February into early April.

Winton Pitcoff, coordinator of the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association (MMPA), echoed Turner's sentiments about last year's season.

"It's a little early to tell how this year will end up, but it's certainly better than last," he said.

Maple syrup pumps about $3 million annually into Massachusetts' economy, according to the nonprofit MMPA, which is dedicated to preserving and promoting the Bay State's sugaring industry.

It's also one of the only tourist draws during dreaded "mud season," luring around 60,000 visitors annually to sugar shacks, roughly 80 percent of which are located in hilltowns west of Interstate 91. All told, these tourists spend an estimated $1 million annually on syrup, according to Pitcoff.

Three years ago, perfect weather conditions resulted in an "incredible" season, he said. And with warmer daytime forecasts on tap over the next several days, sugar maples may continue to produce sap for a while longer.

"The season can go into April," Pitcoff said.

Up in Williamstown, Sweet Brook Farm is nearing completion of its second full season as maple syrup producers.

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"We're almost where we were last year," said Beth Phelps, a co-owner of Sweet Brook.

"It's really contingent on the weather, the temperatures, and the bacteria in the saps in the trees," she said.

Back in Egremont, Turner said she's received a variety of reports about this season, which remains up in the air.

"We've heard through the industry that production has been spotty, depending on where your bush is located and what's going," she said.

"We've been doing this for 22 years. It's not anywhere near our best year, but it's certainly not are worst year," she said.

Turner's syrup is available through mail-order catalogue, at the family's farm stand, at many local restaurants, and at Manhattan's Green Market in Union Square, thanks to a business partnership with a seasonal Egremont resident from New York City.

The Turner family also plans to upgrade its production facility next season by adding a new eco-friendly evaporator -- the device used to boil sap down to pure maple sugar.

"We received an energy grant last year from the state, so at the end of this season we will be replacing our old evaporator with a state-of-the-art evaporator," Carla said.

Many sugaring operations this year are producing medium and darker grades of syrup, rather than lighter grades.

"Last year was really dreadful," said Jen Williams, who co-owns Ashfield's Bear Swamp Orchard with her husband, Steve Gougeon.

"This is a good year, much better than last year. Currently, we have a lot of sap, and it's still running," Williams said.

To reach Conor Berry:;
(413) 496-6249.


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