Have you ever wondered why we start the new year in winter, in the middle of the season of death, instead of in spring, the season of birth? Or instead of in fall, at the peak of harvest/slaughter season, when we fill our larders and then keep track of time as the freezers empty out?
Pegging the start of sugaring season is similarly problematic. In the most literal sense, it started for us at 2:15 p.m. on Thursday, when we made our first syrup of the year. A more conventional starting point would be February 9, the day we drilled our first taphole. But marking time in either of these ways doesn’t quite feel right. I think the true beginning was sometime last May. We had a rough season last year, which featured dramatic weather battles – 70s in February and then 81 inches of snow in 8 days in March. Worst of all, the sap was significantly less sweet than it normally is, likely due to drought conditions in 2016 followed by a stress-induced mast crop in 2017, which burned up the trees’ reserves. We fought the season for three months, and while we collected almost a crop’s worth of sap, due to the poor sugar content we ended up missing our target syrup goal by around 300 gallons. All of this left a bad taste in our mouths and a hunger to have at it again. We pulled our last tap around May 1, and later that month, right around the time the morels went to spore, we started rebuilding a 900-tap section of sugarbush that contained infrastructure that was between 10 and 20 years old.
So when should you replace your old lines and put up new ones? The answers are not entirely satisfying. My sense of best practice – and you other sugarmakers out there should feel free to chime in – is that spouts should be replaced every year and drop lines should be replaced every three to five years. (Proctor Maple Research Center has a calculator related to drop line replacements that you can find on their website under the link: “economics of replacement.”) This, of course, is for producers looking to maximize their yield. You don’t have to run your operation like a business.
After spouts and drops, though, the question of replacement gets more amorphous. We scrutinize our 5/16ths-inch line after a decade, viewing it sort of like you’d view a vehicle, where you have to figure out if the loan payment on a newer one is less objectionable than having to bring it into the shop every three months (the sugaring equivalent of the shop being miles on your legs as you walk lines taping up squirrel chews). The question of when to replace mainlines gets even squishier. I wrote to Mark Isselhardt – the UVM maple extension specialist – and asked him about best practices for mainline replacement. He said:
“The gains seen from replacement (sap yield and net profit) of tubing appear to be greatest the closer you get to the taphole . . . [but] there are a few reasons you might consider changing out the mainline even if the data may not immediately suggest that’s necessary. The first would be if the installation wasn’t great to begin with. By that I mean if it was poorly routed, not on grade, or included unnecessary branches, you might consider starting new. Another reason might be if after doing an inventory for new crop trees you find that there are significant pockets of new taps [which would make the existing line undersized]. Some folks are changing out the old style inline fittings with saddles and find that there are so many breaks in the line it makes some sense to do fresh pipe and avoid all the restrictions and potential vacuum leaks from those junctions.”
Good points, all.
But back to the season at hand.
We sweetened the pans on March 12, and made our first syrup on March 14. This is about a month later than our first boil last year. The prior three seasons all came very early – each of those years we made close to or more than half a crop in February – but around here a second-week-of-March first boil tracks with where things have averaged traditionally. As we tapped, we remembered how civilized a mid-March start date is. It allowed us to tap around our personal and work schedules, and to take the time to fix issues with the lines as we came upon them.
It also allowed us to notice little things you don’t notice when you’re harried. Rubicund basswood buds. Trees exhaling into clear spouts when we tapped them on cold days – their breath turning to frost. How on February 24 it got mid-40s warm, but nothing in nature noticed. The trees barely ran. The animal sign in the woods was negligible . . . and sure enough, arctic cold returned the next day. But then one week later, it got high-30s warm, and the trees wanted to run, and on that same day it seemed like every animal in the forest was in the sugarbush, the coyotes squirting every raised stump and rock, porcupine furrows leading from every crevice, the deer leaving heart patterns on parchment snow like a classroom full of two-year-olds with a stamp pad on Valentine’s day. The bird soundtrack, which for a month had been dominated by the crows’ smoker’s cough trill and the simian scolding of the resident pileated woodpeckers, featured the first whistles and whits of spring. Last night geese flew and heronked through a halo around the moon. This morning mist rose like smoke from the snow while hail pelted the gathering tanks and lightening turned the overcast sky green.
All of this is to say that things are off to a fine start. It could go to hell quickly, of course, but we’re going to take our little victories as they come. Chime in if you’re a sugarmaker and tell us what the season’s like where you are. And good luck to all.