Tuesday, May 21, 2013
BY EDWARD D. MURPHY
Maine Sunday Telegram
Keith Harris is probably one of the few people in southern Maine hoping there's no repeat of last spring, when temperatures soared to nearly 80 degrees for the better part of a week in March.
"What I want is what normal used to be," said Harris, who oversees the maple syrup operation at his family's Harris Farm in Dayton.
To return to normal, Harris and scores of other syrup makers in the state need warm days in the low 40s so the maple trees will send sap from the trunk and roots to branches, with some diverted into taps and buckets on the way. Those days should be followed by sub-freezing nights, which prompts the trees to draw the sap back into the trunk, and those taps and buckets capture some more.
Lots of sap is essential, because once it's all boiled down in the Harris Farm sugarhouse, it takes about 40 gallons of sap to yield a gallon of the sweet liquid that coats pancakes, waffles, ice cream and even scoops of snow.
Last year's warm spell pretty much ended syrup production in southern Maine, Harris said, with the trees kicking into summer gear and no longer sending sap up and down the trunk. Northern Maine producers, he said, weren't quite as affected and most were able to "restart" the season after the warm-up, although production there was down slightly.
A good year is essential for Maine producers who hope to challenge Vermont soon for New England syrup supremacy, said Lyle Merrifield, who heads the Maine Maple Association, representing about 200 syrup makers, about half of the licensed producers in the state.
Merrifield said last year's warm-up was a slight setback in that quest, but he noted that Maine producers are getting used to adapting to climate upheaval.
"The last couple or three years have been pretty early" compared to most seasons, Merrifield said. As in the old days, however, this year's sap tapping began in mid-February and "has got the makings of a good season."
Most of Maine's large-scale production takes place in northern Maine, said Merrifield. Smaller producers in southern Maine tend to sell to local customers, while larger producers who provide the bulk of the 350,000 or so gallons made every year in the state sell their product in bulk.
"Most of that syrup goes to Vermont or goes to New Hampshire," hinting that some of the syrup sold in those states actually originated in Maine.
Merrifield said the syrup industry in Maine has sales of at least $12 million to $14 million a year, but he noted that those reported numbers come from larger producers and doesn't capture smaller operations.
Merrifield said Vermont pays a lot of attention to its syrup industry in a bid to keep the connection between state and product strong, much like Maine and lobster. He said Maine is likewise nurturing the industry, noting that the state in recent years has leased out some maples in state wood lots for tapping in a bid to provide more sap for production.
Prices for syrup have held steady, Merrifield said, at about $54 to $60 a gallon and the hope is that those prices, combined with a better supply from more normal weather conditions, could entice more producers in the market and boost overall output in the state.
Maine, he said, is tied with New York as the second-leading producer of maple syrup in the U.S., behind Vermont.
Real maple syrup, he said, is benefiting from consumers' growing preferences for natural and local food; and Harris said he's heard that from his customers as well.
"It comes to a point where I think people realize that these big corporations are producing a lot of their food and people just don't trust them," he said.
Most people who try real maple syrup, Harris and Merrifield said, become die-hard customers who can't go back to the store-bought brands, which are heavy on high-fructose corn syrup.
Merrifield said there are few foods that are as natural as real maple syrup, which was first produced by American Indians, who taught settlers from Europe how to capture sap by cutting a gash in a maple tree's bark. They boiled off the excess water by tossing heated rocks into a wooden barrel containing the sap.
Today's producers substitute evaporators for the heated-rock method, but the goal is still to boil off most of the water in the sap, which comes out of the tree with a sugar concentration of 2 to 4 percent. The liquid is boiled until that sugar concentration reaches about 67 percent.
"You take 40 gallons of sap and boil it and make syrup," Merrifield said. "You can't mess that up."