- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 21, 2012

TEMPLE, N.H. — A mild winter across the Northeast is injecting extra uncertainty into maple syrup season, but many producers say they will just go with the flow, whenever it starts.

Temperatures have been up and snowfall totals have been down throughout the region this winter, raising some concern for the maple syrup crop. But syrup producers say the weather during the six-week season when sap flows matters more than the weather leading up to it.

“The mild winter, I’m sure, has some effect on the trees and the soil and the microorganisms and so forth, but as long as you get those freezes and thaws during the actual sap flow season, those are what control how much sap you get,” said Brian Stowe, sugaring operations manager at the University of Vermont’s Proctor Maple Research Center.

Below-freezing nights followed by warm days are necessary to start the sap flowing from maple trees, a period that usually begins in late February or early March. But those conditions arrived early in some areas, prompting producers such as Ben Fisk to start collecting and boiling sap Feb. 2, more than a month earlier than he did last year.

“We made syrup the earliest we’ve ever made syrup this year,” said Mr. Fisk, 23, a fifth-generation producer who has been making maple syrup since he was 5. “This time of year, there should be 3 or 4 feet of snow, and it should be cold out and we shouldn’t even be thinking about making syrup for another couple weeks.”

Though Mr. Fisk was happy to get a jump-start on the season, it could end early, too, if prolonged stretches of warm weather result in budding trees. That is the main concern in New York state, where the director of the New York Maple Producers Association has been hearing from plenty of worried members.

“I’ve had more phone calls this year than I’ve ever gotten before. Everyone wants to know what everyone else is doing. ‘Is it time?’ ‘Should we tap?’ ” said Helen Thomas, who set the 1,700 taps on her family’s farm about a week earlier than usual.

With so little snow, she worries that all it will take is one warm day in March to trick the trees into thinking spring has arrived. Once trees start to bud, the sap develops an “off” flavor, effectively ending the season.

“The snow moderates any warm-up. You can have a 60-degree day in March, but if there’s 2 feet of snow on the ground, that tends to keep the woods cool, so you can get past that warm day or two,” she said.

It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup. Last year, U.S. maple production hit an all-time high of 2.79 million gallons, led by Vermont with 1.14 million gallons.

Beyond good weather, technology has played a role in the industry’s growth, with vacuum-tube systems that pull the sap from trees and new taps with valves designed to prevent sap from flowing back into the trees.

In North Andover, Mass., Paul Boulanger of Turtle Lane Maple Farm has decided not to tap his trees at all this year because he already is seeing signs of leaf buds on the trees.

“Even if we started tapping right now, we’d only get a couple of weeks of very watered-down sap, and it’s just not worth it. … We just didn’t have winter, and without winter, there’s no spring, and without spring, there’s no maple syrup,” said Mr. Boulanger, who still plans to give educational tours of his sugar house by watering down syrup he made last year and turning it back into sap.