DEERFIELD VALLEY- Steam billowed out of every crack of Sonny Brown’s sugar shack on East Dover Road Wednesday morning, a sight that has proved to be elusive this maple sugar season. Until Wednesday, there hadn’t been a day with temperatures over 50 degrees, and Brown, a third-generation maple sugar maker who calls the process his hobby, had only boiled out about 35 gallons of syrup.
But with a week of warm weather finally hitting Vermont, what has so far been a vastly underwhelming maple sugar season is primed to boom, and for Brown and others who practice Vermont’s most hallowed tradition, that means it’s time to get cooking.
“It’s been bad so far,” said Brown, who sells his product out of the door of his barn. “Between yesterday (Tuesday) and today, and the outlook for next week, it will hopefully even out some and we’ll be back to average.”
“Average” for Brown and his family this time of year is the production of up to 250 gallons of syrup boiled from the collections of his 1,300 taps. Last year’s yield was 15 gallons short of that average in what was a bit of a down year, but the season was nearly over by the beginning of April. Brown is optimistic about what his trees will produce this year, and as a lifelong logger, if there’s one thing Brown knows, it’s trees. “As long as it stays cold and then warms up during the day it’ll be good,” said Brown.
This sugar season has not been particularly unusual, but it has been considered by some to have arrived late. According to Pam Green, vice chair of the Vermont Maple Syrup Makers Association, the weather leading up to this week has been “hit or miss.”
Green says temperatures need to be below freezing at night (around 25 degrees is perfect), and above freezing during the day, around 40 to 45 degrees, to create the natural pressure in a maple tree, which forces sap out of tap holes. “We really need that special weather pattern to make the sap run,” said Green, who, with her husband Richard, runs Green’s Sugarhouse in Poultney. “We haven’t had that weather pattern, only very occasionally have we seen it this season.”
Maple sugar season typically lasts four to six weeks in March and April, and last year commenced between approximately March 23 and April 27. But as with most aspects of agriculture, maple sugaring puts the cook at the mercy of Mother Nature, and with March sporting freezing temperatures throughout, local cooks like Brown only saw rare boils.
Larger maple sugar operations will often use advanced tap systems which suck the sap right out of the tree, as well as reverse osmosis machines to separate water from the sap. But Brown’s operation is old-fashioned and includes a 200-year-old arch, fed with 25 cords of wood a year, under a stainless steel pan. While Brown carries on this family and state tradition, he says the amount of product he makes each year is in no way up to him. “The good Lord has to determine that, just the same as any other family.”