WINDHAM — Steam billowed out of the Nash Valley Farm sugarhouse, sending out the usual welcome to Maine Maple Sunday visitors.
But not much else was usual at the farm. The buckets hanging on the maple trees stood empty, the maple trees were bursting with flowers and there was a green carpet of grass instead of the usual mix of snow and mud underfoot. And it was water, not sap, boiling away in the evaporator.
“You make the best of it,” said Roberta Morrill, who owns the farm and maple syrup operation with her husband, Richard Morrill.
Unusually warm weather led to a lousy season this year for many Maine maple operations. The sap started flowing in early to mid-February, several weeks earlier than normal, and the warm days and not-so-cold nights were not conducive to sap flow. When the maples started budding a few weeks ago, that spelled the end of the season for many maple operations.
That didn’t appear to dampen the spirits of those who ventured out in the rain to one of the 65 sugarhouses that open their doors on the fourth Sunday in March. Since the first Maple Sunday in 1983, the day has evolved from simple sap house tours to elaborate festivals featuring pancake breakfasts, farm animals and a proliferation of maple-based products.
Maple Sunday is a labor of love at the Nash Valley Farm, said Morrill. She said family members and friends have pitched in for the 11 years that the farm has participated.
“‘They call it the maple reunion,” she said.
Although the farm produced close to 100 gallons of syrup in 2011, which was a great season, this year it made only 40 gallons. Morrill said she will continue to sell the syrup as long as supplies last at her self-serve operation on the front porch, where customers can help themselves to a quart from a little refrigerator and leave behind $16.
Customers “are very trustworthy,” she said.
At the sugarhouse, neighbor Bruce Christiansen stoked the fire and dispensed interesting maple syrup facts to groups of visitors. Not only is it is possible to have a second season in the fall when the maple trees generate more sap, Christiansen said, but in Canada they tap birch trees to make birch sap.
“How come I like the extra amber?” asked visitor Kelley Boero of Cape Elizabeth.
“Because there is more maple flavor, less sweet, ” Christiansen said.
Across the yard, Eliot Verry-Gardella, 5, of Portland scratched the head of Velvet, one of three cashmere goats on display.
“Bunnies have even longer ears than goats,” Eliot observed.
Lisa Demar of Windham said she and her daughters Julia and Annabelle, both 5, and Evelyn, 3, preferred Sunday’s mid-spring conditions.
“The last two years it has been too muddy and snowy,” Lisa Demar said.
At Merrifield Farm in Gorham, hundreds of people rode on hay wagons, watched old-fashioned maple syrup techniques and viewed a blacksmith demonstration in addition to the usual boiling off in the sap house. Although crowds were down a bit, it made the entire day more relaxed.
“I am not complaining,” said farm owner Lyle Merrifield.
The big hit of the day was the maple Needhams, a new twist on Maine’s home-grown mashed-potato-based candy.
At the gas-lit Jo’s Sugarhouse in Gorham, visitors lined up for the maple cotton candy. Owner Jo Hartwell built the sap house in 2003 with Maple Sunday in mind.
The day “is a lot of work,” he said, “but you make something that makes people happy.”
Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at: