Working among rain showers in the morning and a warming sun in the afternoon, Michael Bryant spent most of Friday collecting sap from his free-flowing maple trees.

With 1,200 taps, he and his brother Mark, who own Hilltop Boilers in the York County town of Newfield, spend the daylight hours collecting sap and work through the night into early morning boiling it for syrup.

He’s confident that Maine maple producers are in for a good spring.

“The sap is running like it should be,” he said. “I’m very optimistic. It’s looking very nice.”

The story is much the same around Maine, where farmers have been tapping trees just a bit early this year. A mild spring means long workdays in the snow-covered woods for the men and women who collect the sap and turn it into liquid candy. These are critical days and weeks, because the window for making maple syrup closes quickly. Warm days and cool nights create ideal conditions – and a sense of urgency with temperatures touching 60 in some parts of York County on Friday.

Lyle Merrifield of Gorham, president of the Maine Maple Producers Association, said he expects a better-than-average season in yield and quality, if the weather conditions remain favorable statewide.

“Everything is in line for a very good season right now,” he said. “The sap is really taking off in the southern part of the state, and it’s started in central Maine as well. As far as I can assess it right now, the sap flows are good and sugar content is good.”

Bryant has been boiling sap for a few days, which is a little earlier than usual, but only by a few days. “The end of February or the first week of March is fairly common. The average start day is the last day of February over 30 years. So I’d say we’re right on schedule, or just a little ahead. I’m just amazed how much snow we got in two weeks and how fast it melted in the woods,” he said.

The fast-melting snow made his job easier, because he didn’t have to use snowshoes to get to each of his 1,200 taps.

Nate St. Saviour of Sap Hound Maple Co. in Brownfield, vice president of the Southern Maine Maple Sugarmakers Association, said he got off to an unusually early start this season. He started installing 1,400 taps on Jan. 20 and has already made about 100 gallons of the 700 gallons of maple syrup he hopes to produce this year.

“We’re running full steam ahead. Any time you’re doing anything in January, that’s considered early,” he said. “The middle of February is when people get ramped up.”

At an association meeting last week, about half of the members said they already started tapping and making syrup, while the other half planned to begin soon, St. Saviour said. Traditionally, producers didn’t start boiling syrup until March, but in recent years early thaws have created ideal conditions for a sap run in January and February. Last year, producers in southern Maine were tapping in January, the earliest many could remember doing so.

“Years ago, we were all driven by the calendar,” Merrifield said. “Even if we had warm days in January, we wouldn’t think of tapping trees (this early). But that’s all changed now.”

Perfect conditions for a sap run occur when temperatures drop into the 20s at night, then rise into the 40s during the day. St. Saviour said a heavy snow pack in some parts of the state likely will contribute to a long season because it keeps the ground cold and prevents trees from budding early.

“All indications are it’s going to be a good season,” St. Saviour said. “You never know until it’s all said and done.”

Frank Boucher of Giles Family Farm in Alfred said he started tapping trees Tuesday, which is about the time he starts every year. The farm will install about 3,000 taps and would like to produce around 1,000 gallons of syrup. But, he said, that all depends on the weather.

“These 40-degree days are nice. It’s the 60s that mess us up, because it gets too warm too quick,” he said. “It’s all up to Mother Nature.”

Trees store starch in their trunks during the freeze of winter. The starch changes to sugar, which rises in the sap as the winter days warm. After collecting the sap – some farmers use buckets, others collect it in tubes and pipes – processors boil it to evaporate the water. What’s left is the syrup, which is perfect on blueberry pancakes and French toast.

The frantic dance among the trees will continue as long as the sap flows, culminating with Maine Maple Sunday, a statewide celebration of all things maple, when processors opens up their operations to the public. This year’s event is March 26, although many farms create weekend-long events.

Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

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Twitter: grahamgillian

Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

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Twitter: pphbkeyes