When Mark Cooper first started participating in Maine Maple Sunday 26 years ago, he had a little over 300 taps in his sugarbush, and about 300 people stopped by that day to tour his operation and buy some maple syrup.

By the time this springtime Maine tradition rolled around last year, Coopers Maple Products in Windham had grown to 1,800 taps, and “easily” 3,000 people dropped by to walk Cooper’s farm, watch syrup-making demonstrations and buy maple cotton candy and other maple products. About two dozen relatives and friends show up to help with the logistics of putting on the day.

This year, to help handle the crowds, Cooper will be opening on Saturday as well. He’s setting up a second area on the farm dedicated to sales to accommodate those people who just want to stop by for the pancake breakfast and to buy syrup, and town officials are working with the farm to keep traffic going one way, hoping it will ease some of the congestion.

“I think most of us are at the point where we’re probably getting all the crowds that we can handle,” Cooper said. “Last year was probably a record year for almost everybody that was open for Maple Sunday. Everyone was swamped with people beyond what they expected.”

A new University of Maine study on the economic impact of Maine’s maple industry estimated that 120,000 people participated in Maine Maple Sunday last year. Put into perspective, the population of Maine is only about 1.3 million.

“There’s not too many activities that you can say you’ve got almost 10 percent of your state taking part in it,” said Michael Bryant, owner of Hilltop Boilers in Newfield.

What’s driving the interest? Well, last year it was partly because Maine Maple Sunday fell on a beautiful day – the event is known as a cure for cabin fever – and there wasn’t a lot of competition from other events. But it goes deeper than that, because the most dramatic increase in visitors has been over the past decade.

SEEING WHERE FOOD COMES FROM

A boom in agri-tourism is partially responsible, as more people fancy getting out and experiencing life on the farm firsthand. More than one maple syrup producer linked the increased interest in local foods and the farm-to-table movement with the growing crowds on Maine Maple Sunday.

“People are certainly more concerned with where their food comes from now and how it was produced,” Cooper said. “Early on, there were a lot fewer sugar houses. Word spread, people went out and had a good time. I think social media certainly has helped as well. We have had people texting their friends. We see a lot of that now, whereas in the beginning that didn’t exist.”

Maine was the first New England state to hold a Maple Sunday, back in 1983. This year 95 maple producers will participate, representing every county.

Vermont also will have a Maple Open House Weekend March 22 and 23. New Hampshire producers hold Maple Weekend open houses on those dates as well, but additionally offer options for an entire Maple Month. Their sugarhouses started welcoming visitors last weekend and continue every weekend through April 5-6.

Massachusetts is launching its first Maple Weekend this year, with the help of a $5,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture specialty crops grant. Winton Pitcoff, coordinator of the event, said about a third of the 300 members of the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association already allow visitors at any time, so this new endeavor will just bring more publicity to their efforts.

“There’s real commitment on the part of sugar makers in Massachusetts to keep the tradition going,” Pitcoff said, “and that comes by educating people so they understand where maple syrup comes from, how it’s made and the value of buying it locally from a sugar maker. It’s not just about making more money for the sugar maker, it’s about keeping these farms sustainable so that they can remain as forestland and contribute to the environment and the economy in that way going forward.”

Massachusetts is getting restaurants involved, asking them to feature on their menus at least one item made with Massachusetts maple syrup so the public will start thinking, as the Maine Maple Producers Association cookbook puts it, “Beyond Pancakes.”

Diners at about 30 Massachusetts restaurants will be able to sip maple bourbon and ginger ale cocktails while they enjoy dishes such as maple-glazed duck breast and maple-pecan profiteroles with a maple-espresso glaze, chocolate sauce and maple ice cream.

CROWDS HELP BOTTOM LINE

Maine producers are all about education as well, but the explosion of visitors in recent years has also meant more money for maple entrepreneurs.

Bob Moore, owner of Bob’s Sugarhouse in Dover-Foxcroft, has been making syrup for more than 60 years and started participating in Maine Maple Sunday a year or two after it began.

“It’s fantastic,” he said, talking about the economic impact the day has had on his operation. “I don’t give out my sales numbers, but it means thousands of dollars to us.”

Moore brings in a dozen extra people for the weekend to work in the sugarhouse and in the kitchen, preparing the food that will be passed out as samples to the thousands of visitors who show up. His sugarhouse is packed shoulder-to-shoulder all day long, and cars stretch down the road for a quarter of a mile.

“We initially just did Sundays, but the crowds just got so big they couldn’t get in the building, so we went to Saturdays to try to alleviate some of the crowds on Sunday, but all it did was just draw more people,” he said, laughing. “But it’s a nice problem to have.”

Art and Sue Melanson, owners of High Acres Maple Syrup at Oak Hill Farm in South Hiram, host a pancake breakfast (in their heated barn) and open house on both Saturday and Sunday.

“The income we enjoy from our maple operation has made retirement a possibility,” Sue Melanson said.

They started as a hobby operation in 1997 with 17 taps and made three gallons of syrup that year. Their first boil in a proper sugarhouse came in 2002, and by last year they had 1,581 taps and made 452 gallons of syrup.

They now get about 2,000 visitors every Maine Maple Sunday. A crew of 20 helps them prepare, staying in the farm’s rental cottages; they are paid in pizza Friday night and Chinese food Saturday night. (They are also allowed unlimited pancakes, sausage, bacon and maple baked beans.)

Maple syrup producers “bring in their neighbors, their family members for the day to serve the public,” said Jessica Nixon of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. “A lot of them will spend weeks prior preparing their properties and stocking up on what they’re offering to the public.”

Michael Bryant in Newfield equates getting ready for Maine Maple Sunday to getting ready for a wedding.

“It just takes months and months of preparation,” he said. “The only good part about it that’s different from a wedding is after you do it a few times, you know what you’re doing.”

Bryant started participating in Maine Maple Sunday in 1987 and hosted about 100 visitors the first year. Last year, that number was 6,400. Like some other producers, he now holds the event over both Saturday and Sunday and calls it Maine Maple Weekend. Two thirds of his visitors still come on Sunday.

Bryant starts preparing in December, right down to arranging his advertising and ordering portable toilets.

“Once January hits,” he said, “we can worry about being in the woods making syrup, not worrying about preparing for Maine Maple Sunday.”

He also holds open house weekends on the weekends before and after Maine Maple Sunday weekend, with the help of about 30 extra hired workers. With all the work that goes into it, he figures, why be open just one day, or one weekend? If there’s bad weather on Sunday, it gives people an alternative and keeps the event from being a big flop. The expanded schedule also gives some wiggle room to visitors who don’t like fighting a crowd and prefer a more low-key experience.

“Those three weekends in March are pushing about 40 percent of our sales,” he said, “so it’s a big deal.”

ADDING DAYS AN OPTION

Why not officially expand Maine Maple Sunday to an entire weekend, or even longer? There has been talk among the members of the Maine Maple Producers Association about making that change, but no one seems quite ready to do so officially. The number of producers who have already added extra days to their event is still relatively small, and “we don’t necessarily want to slow the momentum of what we’re gaining on Sunday yet,” Nixon said.

Even if the change were made, adding extra days would still be optional. After all, it’s the producers’ busiest time of year and they have to balance hosting visitors with tapping trees and boiling syrup.

This year, they may find themselves wishing for extra time. With so many people complaining about the bitterly cold winter and yearning for spring, producers may just find themselves overwhelmed with pasty-looking hibernators who just want to get outside for a while and get that springtime syrup high.

“We’re hoping for one heck of a weekend,” Bryant said. “If the weather’s even close to good, people will be there. The old saying, if you build it they will come, it sure is true. They do come.”

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:mgoad@pressherald.com

Twitter: MeredithGoad