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Warm nights speeding up maple syrup season

At this time of the year, tin buckets are usually still dangling from maple trees in Somerset County as farmers gather the precious sweet sap that is the key ingredient in the county's signature maple syrup.

But this year, Mother Nature got into the act with warmer temperatures that shortened the "tapping season," an annual rite of spring in which workers at the state's 500 maple farms drill into the trees to drain the clear sap and begin the process of making syrup.

Andy Sanner, co-owner of Sanner Maple Products in Rockwood, Somerset County, said he put 13,000 taps on maple trees this year -- as he did last year -- but doesn't expect to produce nearly as much syrup.

"We made about two-thirds of what we did last year," Sanner said. "Last week should have been one of your best weeks in a normal year, but it was virtually nothing."

The warm weather caused the trees to reach their prime much earlier this year, according to one expert.

"This year has been kind of interesting," said Bob Hansen, a director with the Penn State Cooperative Extension Service. The prime tapping season actually started two to three weeks earlier on average, said Hansen. "And I'm pretty sure, by now it's ended. I just can't picture anybody is still making syrup."

The tapping season generally extends from late February through April, he said.

Somerset County is the top player in the state's maple syrup industry, generating $1.5 million of the $4.5 million produced statewide, according to the extension service. Pennsylvania is the country's fifth-largest producer of maple syrup -- 128,000 gallons last year.

But without the warm spring days and cold nights that produce optimal tapping conditions, some fear production will be way down this year.

The maple syrup process begins in the summer when a tree begins producing sugar in the form of sap in its branches and leaves, a process that feeds the tree and helps it grow. When winter approaches and temperatures drop, the sap is pushed to the tree's roots where it's stored through the winter. As temperatures increase in the spring, the sap moves back up into the body of the tree, allowing the farmers to drill holes and insert a tap to drain about 10 percent of the sap.

After the sap is collected, it's boiled down to remove the water and transform the remaining sugar into syrup.

Molly Enos, owner of Paul Bunyan's Maple Syrup in Rockwood, said she finished tapping trees at the beginning of March.

"Once the maple trees start budding, the season is over," Enos said. "There's nothing you can do about it, it's Mother Nature."

Last year, about 40 gallons of sap were required to make one gallon of syrup, but this year Enos said almost twice as many gallons were required to produce the same amount of syrup.

Although maple trees in some areas had a high sugar content this year, Enos said her Rockwood camp and others in the Laurel Highlands, were dealing with lower sugar contents. Maple trees have an average of 2 percent to 3 percent sugar content. The higher the sugar content, the less sap is needed to make syrup because less water has to be boiled off.

Maple syrup producers around the nation are seeing the same problems brought on by the warm winter.

Vermont is the nation's leading producer of maple syrup -- about 1.1 million gallons or 41 percent of the national output. Farmers in that state say they're producing syrup, but their numbers are down.

It's too early to determine if the 2012 season will see a syrup shortage or increasing prices, farmers say.

"From what I've heard from other people, they've had an excellent quality, just not much of it," Mary Croft, spokeswoman for the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association, said. "It'll definitely be a smaller crop for a lot of producers."

Maple festival still on

Despite the short season, enthusiastic maple farmers and consumers will gather this weekend in Meyersdale, Somerset County, for the 65th Pennsylvania Maple Syrup Festival.

Although some of the farmers believe the warm weather has hurt production this year, they say the maple syrup will be plentiful, along with other treats ranging from maple candy to maple mustard.

"Talking to some of the producers, their production is down," Susie Decker, a director for the festival, said. "They've seen better runs, but there will be plenty of syrup for the festival."

With more than 100 producers -- from family farms to commercial operators -- Somerset County is the largest maple syrup operation in the state, she said.

"It's basically the lay of the land," Decker said. "We have the weather and a lot of maple trees in the area."

About 10,000 people are expected to attend the seven-day festival, which begins Saturday.

Maple connoisseurs will have the opportunity to try the usual favorites, including sugar cakes, maple-flavored kettle corn, cotton candy, peanuts and maple ice cream toppings. Maple mustard for ham, bologna and turkey is new this year.

Pennsylvania also boasts other maple syrup celebrations.

This weekend, the Northwest Pennsylvania Maple Association will host the 9th Annual Taste and Tour weekend in Edinboro. Visitors can taste maple treats, browse an arts and crafts show and listen to live music. For information, visit www.pamaple.org .

Potter and Tioga counties will host the 8th Maple Weekend this Saturday and Sunday. The "traveling festival" enables visitors to observe tree tapping and sugar boiling.

Next month, Bradford County will host the 31st Endless Mountains Maple Festival on April 28 and 29 in Troy. The event includes a pancake breakfast, maple demonstration, horse pulls, live music and several other activities. For information, contact the festival office at 570-297-3648.

Did you know ...

Tapping does not permanently damage the tree, and only about 10 percent of the sap is collected each year. Each tap yields an average of 10 gallons of sap per season, the amount required to produce one quart of syrup.

-- Warm sunny days (above 40 degrees) and cold nights (20 degrees and below) are ideal for sap flow.

-- The maple season usually starts in the middle of February and may last 4 to 8 weeks, depending on weather conditions.

-- The harvest season ends with the arrival of warm spring nights and early bud development in the trees.

-- Maple syrup is heated to produce maple cream, maple sugar and maple candy.

-- A gallon of pure maple syrup weighs 11 pounds.

Source: Pennsylvania Maple Syrup Producers Council

National maple production/gallons

Vermont - 1,140,000

New York - 564,000

Maine - 360,000

Wisconsin - 155,000

Pennsylvania - 128,000

Ohio - 125,000

Michigan - 123,000

New Hampshire - 120,000

Massachusetts - 62,000

Connecticut - 17,000

Source: 2011 National Agricultural Statistics Service

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