Harsh winter sets back Western Pa. maple harvest
One of Western Pennsylvania's sweetest late-winter rites — tapping thousands of maple trees to gather the sap needed to make syrup — is off to a slow start this year, a victim of winter's big chill.
Although experts say forecasts of warmer weather for this week make them cautiously optimistic, a perfect combination of days in the low 40s and nights in the 20s is needed to make the tree sap go from a trickle to a flow.
But even with the possibility of a warmup, producers agree they have to make up a lot of lost ground.
“The cold has definitely slowed our season,” said Melissa Friend of Milroy Farms in Salisbury, Somerset County.
“It's a little late to still be tapping. Last year we started on Feb. 17. This year, it was a week later,” said Friend.
Milroy Farms produces maple syrup, candy, spread and cream from 10,000 taps generally yielding about 180,000 gallons of sap.
Friend said the operation is behind on the boiling process, in which the sap is heated to reduce the water content, leaving behind the syrup. It takes about 40 to 50 gallons of sap — depending on the sugar content — to produce one gallon of syrup.
By this time most years, the sweet-smelling steam billowing from “sugar houses” where the sap is boiled can be found throughout the county.
“We're actually married to the weather reports,” joked Bill Phillips, president of the Northwest Pennsylvania Maple Association.
“I think most people have tapped. We are waiting for the weather to turn so it runs,” said Phillips, owner of Fort LeBoeuf Maple in Erie County.
But while sap-watchers are glued to weather reports these days, they're hoping it doesn't get too warm too quickly.
An early spring could be disastrous.
“The season is over when the buds (on the trees) burst open. A few years ago, the season ended on March 12. It was too warm,” Phillips said.
Scientists say the weather will not affect the quality of syrup produced this year. And once the season begins, there is no telling how much sap will be gathered.
“It probably will shorten the season, but it will not necessarily be a poor season,” said Jim Finley, professor of forest resources at Penn State. “The volume could be really good on the few days it flows.”
It's a wait-and-see story playing out in most maple syrup-producing states where frigid temperatures have stalled the process.
From Connecticut to Kentucky and Illinois to New York, maple producers are hoping a break in the weather will send sap flowing from their trees.
In New York state, producers near the eastern shore of Lake Ontario still have sap-gathering lines buried under five feet of snow, said Helen Thomas, executive director of the New York State Maple Producers Association. New York is the nation's second biggest producer of maple syrup after Vermont.
In Genoa, Ill., it was the first time in the history of the town's annual Maple Syrup Fest that the sap was not flowing from trees, putting a damper on festivities that normally include hikes into the woods to tap trees.
Locally, officials say a slow start to the season should have little impact on maple-related events planned throughout March and April.
But it's too soon to tell whether the industry's difficulties will translate to higher prices for consumers buying syrup for their pancakes and waffles.
“If we end up with a smaller supply, we're going to see higher prices,” said Christopher Wolf, a professor of agriculture, food and resource economics at Michigan State University.
Pennsylvania is fifth in the nation in terms of the number of taps and production, generating about 60,000 gallons of syrup last year valued at $2 million.
This year's jittery nerves about the season's outcome follows a banner year in 2012 in which production was up because of warmer-than-usual weather in the region.
In 2013, 3.25 million gallons of maple syrup was produced nationally, up 70 percent from 2012.
The 2013 season also lasted two weeks longer than the typical four to eight weeks.
For 31 years, Everett Sechler, owner of the Sugar Shack in Confluence, has watched the maple industry ebb and flow, usually because of the temperature outside.
So he's not too worried about the slow start to this season.
He placed about 4,000 taps by Valentine's Day, about the normal time.
“I think this is probably the longest cold spell I can remember,” Sechler said.
“(But this)week looks favorable. With a week of temperatures like that (in the low 50s and 40s in the day and low 20s at night), you can have a normal crop.”
Mary Pickels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-5401 or email@example.com.