As temperatures rose Tuesday into the mid-40s, Ashley Gerry was at work in the woods, repairing his sap-collecting equipment and drilling taps as he prepared for maple sugaring season.

It wasn’t too early in the season for this kind of activity, he said, but it was early to be there in the woods “and have actual sap flowing.”

Gerry, owner of Maple Hill Sugar House in Newfield and president of the Southern Maine Maple Sugarmakers Association, said that in the 24 years he has kept records, he’s never collected sap this early. Usually he doesn’t start thinking about it for another two or three weeks.

Ashley Gerry, 40, runs sap lines Tuesday at his Maple Hill Sugar House in Newfield. “I’m generally one of the first in southern Maine to make some syrup,” says Gerry, president of the Southern Maine Maple Sugarmakers Association. “But even for me, this is pretty early.”

Ashley Gerry runs sap lines Tuesday at his Maple Hill Sugar House in Newfield. “I’m generally one of the first in southern Maine to make some syrup,” says Gerry, president of the Southern Maine Maple Sugarmakers Association. “But even for me, this is pretty early.” Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Photos by Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“Our woods are warm anyway, so I’m generally one of the first in southern Maine to make some syrup,” he said. “But even for me, this is pretty early.”

A stretch of mild weather has roused Mother Nature from winter, and sap is already flowing in maple trees in some parts of the state. That’s not necessarily unusual. Perfect conditions for a sap run occur when temperatures drop into the 20s at night, and then rise into the 40s during the day. That can happen during a January thaw. But when it happens after Feb. 1 in southern Maine, Gerry said, it brings a sense of urgency to sugar houses because it means “the season is officially going.”

Maine has the third-largest maple product industry in the United States. Kathy Hopkins, the Skowhegan-based maple syrup expert with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, said she’s heard anecdotal reports that there are producers all over the state who are already making syrup. But it’s supposed to get colder next week, so she expects there will be a pause in the season before the sap starts flowing in earnest.

Sap drips into a bucket Tuesday at Maple Hill Sugar House in Newfield. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Sap drips into a bucket Tuesday at Maple Hill Sugar House in Newfield. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“You think of March as being maple month, and March is a ways off yet, but it’s lovely weather for making syrup this week,” she said. “Some (producers) are ready and are making syrup, and some are not ready yet. This weather came unexpectedly, and they’ll be ready for the next run.”

Michael Bryant, owner of Hilltop Boilers in Newfield, has not yet put in any of his 1,000 taps. There are two schools of thought about tapping early during warm spells like this one, he said. One is that “you get sap whenever you can, wherever you can.”

The other says that winter likely is not over yet, and tapping too early means a lot of headaches dealing with sap tanks freezing and thawing, and evaporators that have to stay heated – headaches that could cut into profits. The sugar content of sap is also lower the earlier it’s collected, and that means it takes more sap to make a gallon of syrup.

TAPPING TOO EARLY RUNS RISKS

Producers who use pails instead of tap lines run the risk of taps drying out in a few weeks if they are put into the tree too early. If that happens, it means having to re-tap those trees.

“I just think it’s too early,” Bryant said. “There’s certainly plenty of people who disagree with that.”

Jeff Berry of Waterboro fills 30-gallon buckets in the bed of his truck Tuesday after collecting sap in Buxton. Berry, who described this year’s flow as “real early,” started tapping maple trees with his partner on Jan. 27. They’ve already collected 1,000 gallons of sap that they planned to start boiling Wednesday.

Jeff Berry of Waterboro fills 30-gallon buckets in the bed of his truck Tuesday after collecting sap in Buxton. Berry, who described this year’s flow as “real early,” started tapping maple trees with his partner on Jan. 27. They’ve already collected 1,000 gallons of sap that they planned to start boiling Wednesday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Clark Cole, owner of Clark Cole Family Pure Maple Syrup in Dayton, usually puts in his 800-plus taps around Feb. 8 or 10. This year he’ll start installing taps on Thursday and hopes to have them all in by Saturday night.

On Tuesday, Cole was washing out his storage tanks, getting them ready to start storing sap this weekend. “Right now, I’m just being patient,” he said.

Cole has been making maple syrup since 1972, and isn’t that impressed by the timing of the current sap run.

“Over the last 20 years, I’m going to put this somewhere near average,” he said. “It’s not unusual.”

It’s “real early,” though, for Jeff Berry, a hobbyist from Waterboro who has about 450 taps on land in the Buxton-Hollis area. He and his partner, Cecil Wells, started tapping Jan. 27 and already have collected 1,000 gallons of sap that they’ll boil down into 23 to 25 gallons of syrup starting Wednesday.

SHARP CONTRAST FROM LAST YEAR

The earliest Gerry ever made maple syrup was Jan. 21, about 26 or 27 years ago – before he began keeping records.

“It was wonderful syrup,” he recalled. “It was probably some of the lightest and most amazing-flavored syrup I’ve ever made in my history, but it only lasted four, maybe five days and then it froze up solid for another solid month and a half. I had all kinds of problems, and I vowed after that I would never do that again.”

Jeff Berry collects sap from 30-gallon buckets in Buxton on Tuesday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Jeff Berry collects sap from 30-gallon buckets in Buxton on Tuesday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

This year’s early sap run contrasts sharply with last year, when bitter cold postponed sap collection and syrup production until well into March. Syrup producers panicked a little, but it still turned out to be a good year.

“It was a short season,” Cole said, “but the trees really let go at the end of March, so we were all right.”

Maine produced 553,000 gallons of syrup in 2015, up from the previous year but slightly less than in 2013, according to New England Agricultural Statistics Service, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The timing of this year’s sap run is no indicator of what will happen over the next couple of months, producers say. There’s no predicting whether this will be a shorter maple syrup season, or a longer one.

“My favorite expression, when someone wants to know what kind of season it’s going to be, is it’s like baseball,” Cole said. “I can tell you at the end of the season.”