In a normal year, Lyle Merrifield’s maple trees on his farm in Gorham produce enough sap to allow him to make about 180 gallons of syrup. But this has not been a normal winter and the trees aren’t producing any sap yet. With Maine Maple Sunday – the day most sugarhouses in the state open to allow visitors to see syrup being made, and to get a taste – a little more than a month away – March 22 – the state’s syrup producers are starting to get a bit nervous.

Merrifield is the new president of the Maine Maple Producers Association. He has a “gentleman’s farm” in Gorham with a few animals on it, and started tapping maple trees and boiling sap to make syrup about 35 years ago. He now taps about 600 trees each year while his wife, daughters and a few nephews help him produce the syrup.

Q: How did you get interested in making maple syrup?

A: When I was kindergarten, the first tree I tapped was with our kindergarten teacher. She showed us how to tap the tree and get the sap and make the syrup in the classroom and that kind of stuck with me. I did it in Boy Scouts, too.

Q: Do you connect the trees via tubing to the sugarhouse or do it the old-fashioned way, with buckets hung on the taps?

A: We hang very few buckets. Most of our trees are on tubing and some are on vacuum systems.

Q: Using a vacuum system sounds like cheating.

A: What you’re doing is creating the right environment for that tree to run on days when you’re not getting the barometric pressure right. It makes for a healthier environment in the tree. It helps to pull that sap out so it keeps a good clean hole. And, as long it’s done properly, it’s healthy for the tree. We want the freezing nights, freezing by six or seven at night and then up to 35 or 40 by 9:30 or 10 in the morning. That really gets the gases and pressure moving in that tree and it pushes the sap out of the tree.

Q: With the unreliable weather over the last five years, it must be hard to forecast how much syrup you’ll produce.

A: I can’t say we’ve ever had a really bad year, but some years are better than others. Last year, it was just hurry up and wait and the weather was never right. We need that temperature swing (freezing nights and 35 to 40 degree days). We never got that.

Q: How much sap do you get per tree?

A: We plan on enough sap for between one quart or a half gallon of syrup for that season. There are variables, like the crown size of the tree and where it is in the woods. The larger crown on the tree, the more sap you’re going to get. The branches in the crown collect the heat and that helps get the gases moving in the tree.

Q: What do you like about making syrup?

A: I enjoy the product, but I enjoy the family working all together on it, and when it’s running decent, we’ll boil every night. It’s intense for three weeks or so, when you have a decent season, and I like the crowd getting together to make the syrup. Also, I like the process of taking something out of the tree and boiling it and it makes a product that’s so good.

Q: Do you plan to make syrup a long time?

A: As long as I’m able. I’m only 52, so I think I’ve got a few years left in me. But last year I had a broken foot and didn’t do too much at all. It was mostly my daughters and nephews who did it all.

Q: What are prices for real maple syrup?

A: Pricing varies some by your location, but right now, our pricing on gallons is $60, half-gallons are $35 and quarts are $19.

Q: How important is Maine Maple Sunday for those in the business?

A:. Seventy-five percent of our sales are on Maine Maple Sunday.

Q: Do you sell it on the farm other than on Maine Maple Sunday?

A: We don’t have set hours, but we have customers who stop by on a regular basis.

Q: How do sales of real maple syrup stack up against the national brands, most of which have only a small percentage of real syrup in them?

A: Real syrup consumption and use is gaining nationally. It’s gaining a lot. And production is up – in the U.S. producing states, approximately a million taps are being added each year. What’s helping us, too, is the natural food movement. If you read most of the back (label of national brands), most of them have one or two percent (real syrup) and that’s about it. Some of the national brands have even adopted the look of the jug that real syrups are sold in, so the consumer has to watch that pretty close.

Q: Do syrup producers follow the practice of some vegetable and fruit producers and sell directly to restaurants?

A: We have on occasion, but it’s a little hard on us because of the amount we produce and the price point. We try to promote that and that’s one of our goals is to try to make that happen.

Q: As president of the association, what’s your assessment of the state of the industry?

A: There are more farms (making syrup) and the largest percentage of farms are small size and they’re getting pretty good numbers. It’s a good niche to generate a little revenue and Maine Maple Sunday is very popular. And that gives all the sugarhouses a good boost at that time of year. There was a study done and they estimate more than $28 million is generated (by Maine Maple Sunday, not directly from syrup, but from people coming to the state and renting hotel rooms and other purchases.

Q: Are you worried about Maine Maple Sunday, given the long, cold winter that shows no signs of ever ending?

A: I’m not worried because in four weeks, a lot can change. The snow right now is having an effect on a lot of producers. Some main lines are completely buried in snow and those are lines that are normally waist-high or knee-high. If the snow doesn’t disappear by then, it could slow the season down a bit. It’s likely we won’t see a big warm-up because we have a lot of snow on the ground, but you want to see the tree swelling up and the snow melting around the base of the tree and you need to see that before the sap will flow.