No, it’s not just you. It is unusually warm outside.
The maple trees sense it, too, and that means their sap is running abnormally early.
Warmer-than-normal days and cold nights are combining to create ideal conditions to get maple syrup season off to one of its earliest starts ever, said Keith Harris of Harris Farm in Dayton.
Harris figures his trees’ sap production and his syrup output are running a week to 10 days ahead of normal. He has already produced about 15 gallons of syrup – about 10 percent of what he expects to make this year — at a time when the taps on his 525 maple trees are usually still dry.
Other farmers also are tending their taps and firing up their evaporators early. Harris and others said they usually see such conditions in early March.
There is concern that by March 28 – Maine Maple Sunday, when syrup producers will open their sugarhouses to the public — that the sap run will be over because of the early start.
If that happens, Harris said, producers resort to boiling water – that’s what most of sap is anyway – to demonstrate the syrup-making process, perhaps adding a gallon or two of syrup to the evaporators to provide the necessary aroma.
Harris had the wood-fired evaporator in his farm’s sugarhouse going full bore Tuesday, boiling down the roughly 300 gallons of sap that he collected Monday.
He said the warm days spur the maples to start drawing up sap that’s been stored in roots over the winter and send it out to leaf buds, providing nourishment. As the day cools, the sap is drawn back into the trunk or roots, where it stays overnight before flowing up again on the next warm day.
For a maple producer, the key is that the sap is moving, up or down the tree.
This year’s weather has sap running from Bangor south, said Lyle Merrifield of Merrifield Farm in Gorham, president of the Maine Maple Producers Association. ”It’s the earliest ever” that he and other farmers have had their evaporators going, he said.
Merrifield said it’s uncertain whether the early start is good or bad for this year’s syrup season. If the weather gets too warm, especially overnight, it could mean an early start and early end to the sap runs. A cold snap is OK, and just delays the run for a few days.
Merrifield said the quality of the sap doesn’t appear to be affected by the early start, but ”after only one boil, it’s hard to say.”
These are good times for maple syrup makers in Maine, he said.
The recession doesn’t appear to have hurt sales of real maple syrup, Merrifield said. He attributes that to consumers’ stronger appetite for all-natural and organic products, rather than those with artificial sweeteners.
”Globally, syrup sales are way up,” he said, as syrup is used more to sweeten other products.
The process of making maple syrup hasn’t changed much since colonial times. Harris collects sap in traditional metal buckets or plastic bags, although a few trees near the sugarhouse are connected by plastic tubing to a pump.
The pump sends the sap up into a 480-gallon storage tank near the roof. From there, it’s gravity-fed to the evaporator, where the water in the sap is boiled off, increasing the concentration of sugar from 2 percent or 3 percent straight out of the tree to 67 percent or 69 percent.
In the process, the clear sap turns a rich amber color. The depth of the coloring determines the grade of the syrup, from light amber, with a mild maple flavor, to extra dark amber, which has the strongest maple flavor and is Harris’ favorite.
Things are changing inside the sugarhouse. When he’s not shoving pine logs into the burner under his evaporator, Harris works on a PowerPoint presentation on his laptop.
”This isn’t grandpa’s sugarhouse,” he said.
But Harris reverts to a farmer’s more traditional, noncommittal response when asked what the early sap run means.
”Is this an indicator of an early spring?” he said. ”Who knows?”
Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: