Maine Maple Sunday has gotten so big that Michael Bryant has to hire a traffic cop to control the congestion caused by the thousands of cars heading to his sugar house in the tiny town of Newfield.

“We probably had 4,500 people come through here last year, and the town’s population is only 1,500, so we hire officers to help out,” said Bryant, who runs Hilltop Boilers on his family’s farm. “It gets bigger every year, and the demand for Maine syrup keeps going up.”

Bryant is one of several maple syrup makers who have hired police to help with Maine Maple Sunday crowds. Like a lot of his fellow maple producers, he’s also bought new equipment to keep up with demand — a $50,000 evaporator to boil sap faster. Why? He’s seen the price for Maine syrup double in the last 10 years, from $8 to $16 a quart.

Maine Maple Sunday has grown from 10 or so sugar houses in 1983 to more than 65 expected to participate in this year’s event, scheduled for next weekend.

And as the event — held annually in March, when the sap is usually running — has grown, the day has evolved from simply a chance to tour a sugar house to something bordering on a statewide, maple-themed family festival.

Like a lot of maple producers, Bryant tries to draw big crowds on Maine Maple Sunday by adding games and activities that go way beyond watching sap boil and tasting syrup. This year he’s got a sap-lugging race, in which people will be timed to see how fast they can carry a full bucket of sap from one point to the other. He will also have live music by the band Red Flannel Hash, as well as tractor rides, free syrup samples and a guess-the-pig’s-weight contest.

Other sugar houses will be offering wagon rides, door prizes and free syrup samples, usually with free ice cream. One place — Cooper’s Maple Products in Windham — will have an ostrich on view.

Most places will also be selling a large variety of maple goods, from syrup and maple ice cream to maple cotton candy and maple whoopie pies. Many will have a pancake breakfast (for a fee).

Some will be open and celebrating on Saturday as well, having decided that Maine Maple Sunday is so big, they need two days to accommodate crowds.

Sugar houses expect to have plenty of syrup this year, because the sap began running a little earlier — February — due to mild temperatures. It’s hard to predict whether sap will still be running on Sunday, but maple makers say they’ll have plenty of freshly made syrup on hand.

All participating maple makers will offer tours of their sugar houses and explain how Maine syrup is made, which is why the event was started in the first place. Some places don’t put on a lot of extra activities, so you can enjoy a simple look at a sugar house in a quieter setting, if that’s what you want.

“I just do a traditional sugar house on a small family farm. We don’t put on a circus,” said Ted Greene of Greene Maple Farm in Sebago, who helped start the event in 1983. “We wanted a day to promote maple in Maine, and it’s worked.”

The growth of Maine Maple Sunday, both as the biggest retail sales day for maple producers and as a huge public awareness event, has prompted people in the state’s maple industry to start thinking even bigger.

Last year, the Legislature authorized a commission to study the potential growth of the Maine maple industry, including possible impacts on jobs and tourism. The commission, which is continuing the study this year, is headed by state Rep. Russell Black (R-Wilton), who also makes maple syrup at his Black Acres Farm.

So far, the study has found that there are about 1.5 million maple taps around the state, with a potential for some 41 million taps. About 5 million of those would be a half-mile or less from an existing road.

Black says the study’s findings so far include an estimate for the creation of 547 maple-related jobs for six months of the year in Somerset County (north of Skowhegan), which is currently home to the few large-scale maple producers in the state.

Most of the sugar houses open on Maine Maple Sunday are small operations run by people who make much of their income doing something else. But Black’s hope is that, with state help and promotion, Maine maple syrup can be a world-wide brand and an edible symbol of the state, like lobster, blueberries and potatoes.

“We need to look at funding a commission, like the Maine Potato Board, to find grants and funding and pull all the resources together needed to grow the industry and get people to invest,” said Black. “Maine Maple Sunday shows how interested people are in this product.”

Black said the price of Maine syrup has increased steadily partly because there’s not a huge supply, and partly because it’s known as a high-quality product. There have been other recent studies that tout the antioxidant benefits of maple syrup.

Black says that because only a few areas in the world can produce maple syrup — a swath of North America from about Michigan to Canada’s Atlantic Provinces — Maine should take more advantage of its maple potential.

And, he says, the growth of Maine Maple Sunday has prompted him and his fellow producers to think about expanding the event officially to a whole weekend next year, or maybe even a week.

Is Maine Maple Month somewhere in our future? (Its acronym would be MMM, after all, and that sounds enticing.)

Maybe, but for now Maine Maple Sunday offers plenty of opportunities to taste syrup and see how it’s made –whether it’s in a festive-like atmosphere or in a more quiet setting.

Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at:

rrouthier@pressherald.com

Twitter: @RayRouthier