Michael Bryant usually starts tapping maples for his Newfield sugarhouse during the fourth week of February.
This year he pushed the date up to Feb. 10.
“This is the earliest since I started in the 1980s,” said Bryant, a third-generation syrup producer and owner of Hilltop Boilers.
The sap is running way ahead of schedule across much of Maine. Bryant and other maple syrup producers said the warm winter and lack of snow cover have them nervous about the season’s prospects.
“Fifty-degree days are not good for sap,” said Robert Parson of Parson’s Maple Products in Gorham.
Without a sustained stretch of cold nights followed by sunny, warm days, the maples could start budding, which would spell the end of the season. Maple producers say they now wonder whether the sap will still be running by Maple Sunday on March 25, when sugar houses across the state open their doors to the public.
“The weather is way too nice and has kept us all wondering throughout the winter,” said Lyle Merrifield of Merrifield Farm in Gorham, who is president of the Maine Maple Producers Association.
Merrifield said he has seen sap flow this early before, but with the unusual lack of snow cover in many areas, producers are nervous.
Maple syrup is big business in Maine. It’s the third-largest syrup-producing state in the nation, putting out 360,000 gallons last year. Only Vermont, with 1.1 million gallons, and New York, with 564,000 gallons, produced more in 2011.
Maine’s maple syrup was valued at $10.5 million in 2010, according to the latest data available from the New England office of the National Agricultural Statistics Service. Last year’s long winter brought one of the best seasons ever, with production up 14 percent in Maine and 43 percent nationwide over 2010.
Membership in the Maine Maple Producers Association has also grown, from 108 members to 150 today. Merrifield attributed the growth to a surge in demand for maple syrup, triggering an increase in the number of producers.
Last year, Maine producers also benefited from an unusually high sugar content — the result of a year of excellent growing conditions. It required only 34 gallons of Maine sap to produce one gallon of syrup; in the rest of New England, 42 to 44 gallons of sap were needed to make a gallon of syrup.
“Southern Maine had a phenomenal year,” Bryant said.
Matt Roy of Royal Maple sugarhouse in Buxton said he normally doesn’t start boiling off until the second week of March, but as of Saturday he had collected enough sap to fire up his evaporator. Roy, who has about 2,000 taps, said the lack of snow cover may shorten the season, but it has made it much easier to maneuver in the woods. “Usually my woods are standing in 3 to 4 feet of snow,” he said.
Merrifield said Maple Sunday will go on even if the trees stop producing sap early. He said people look forward to celebrating a product that is naturally produced close to home.
“In today’s food climate, that means a lot,” he said.
Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at: