Red Maple In Middlefield Township Sugarbush on March 1, 2017
Les Ober, OSU Extension
It is March 2nd and we have just seen the warmest February on record in the Cleveland, Ohio area The 77 degree day that we experienced on Friday February 24th shattered every record for a high temperature in the month of February and it was also the highest winter temperature in Cleveland for any winter month. The way the month of February ended created a dark shadow on our ability to make maple Syrup in Ohio. Now we are in March, the cold temperatures have come back. It looks like we will see temperatures dipping into the teens or low twenties. Where does that leave us?
Many trees have budded out. All of the Silver Maple and many Red Maples that are out in the open have full buds. The Sugar Maples did not budded and this is why we prize and select for this species of Maple. Let me say this going forward. If you are a commercial producer who has not tapped the potential to make significant amount of syrup is gone. The next warm spell will likely end the season for everyone. If you are a hobby producer who has not tapped, it is too late, forget about it. If you are hobby producer who has tapped and your taps are not running, do not re-tap, I repeat do not re-tap. You will most likely not make any useable syrup and you will not be doing your trees any favors.
Now let’s address the producers that have been making syrup and have the potential to make more syrup. If you have Red Maples make sure you look at them very carefully or just pull the taps, especially road side trees. Several producers with large populations of Reds have called it quits altogether due to budding. For those with Sugar Maples the potential is there to make more syrup. You do not want to spoil that sap by collecting sap from a Red Maple that has budded.
At this point your biggest enemy is bacteria. Everything needs to be cleaned out and drained. You could see high levels of bacteria building in the lines and tanks over the previous week of warm weather. Many producers just kept the vacuum pumps running during that period and hoped for the best. Many collected a fair amount of sap due to weather fronts that pushed through. I am sure it paid to operate the pumps regardless of the temperatures and it kept their lines clear. If you shut of the vacuum because the trees just quit running I hope you were using check valves because this gave you some degree of protection from bacteria at the tap hole.
Now that the cold weather has returned what kind of syrup will we make? The answer will come once your fire up the evaporator. If it is buddy you will know it. Most likely you will be producing a darker grade of syrup. That is not bad because most producers produced a good volume of Golden Delicate early on. If the producer chooses the two could be blended but taste will determine that. You can blend for color but you cannot blend for taste. If you syrup has a slight off flavor from sour sap or budding it will show up in the blended grade. There is virtually no way to mask an off flavor in syrup once it is there and no reason to ruin what you have previously made. That is why some producers chose to call it quits rather than trying to sell and off flavored syrup to their customers. Keep the syrup separate and find a market for it. If the flavor is not pronounced there is a market for this syrup but be beware the bulk price may be below the cost of production.
Producers that tapped in early January have had a normal season. The biggest question is, after last year and this year, have we established a new normal for Ohio Maple Syrup Production or maybe the two distinct zones of production in Ohio are consolidating. I say this because if you produce syrup near the Ohio River you would normally tap in January. If you live in NE Ohio you would normally tap in mid-February. Maybe we are now seeing a climate shift that will establish a universal tapping date for the entire state. For sure, after this year producers must realize you can no longer tap by the calendar. If you produce maple syrup in Ohio you need to be ready to go by New Year’s Day. This will require spending time over the holidays getting the sugarbush ready to tap. If the season does not start until February so be it, but at least if we have established a new normal you will be ready. Climate change is just that, change and the only certainty in life is change. We change our systems, we change out tapping technology, we adapt. This is the only way you will survive in this business or any business.