Sweet spot: Area sugarhouses start tapping season early after warm winter days

Rich Valcourt of Valcourt Sugar Shack in Petersham is surrounded by steam as his loads wood into his evaporator boiling down sap from his 1,400 taps in the North Quabbin area.

Rich Valcourt of Valcourt Sugar Shack in Petersham is surrounded by steam as his loads wood into his evaporator boiling down sap from his 1,400 taps in the North Quabbin area. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Rich Valcourt of Valcourt Sugar Shack in Petersham checks his standby tank of sap that has been concentrated by his reverse osmosis machine.

Rich Valcourt of Valcourt Sugar Shack in Petersham checks his standby tank of sap that has been concentrated by his reverse osmosis machine. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Rich Valcourt of Valcourt Sugar Shack in Petersham loads up the arch with wood as he boils down his recent haul of sap into maple syrup on a recent Thursday.

Rich Valcourt of Valcourt Sugar Shack in Petersham loads up the arch with wood as he boils down his recent haul of sap into maple syrup on a recent Thursday. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Valcourt Sugar Shack in Petersham.

Valcourt Sugar Shack in Petersham. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Chip Williams of the Williams Farm Sugar House in Deerfield and his son Miles Williams, 10, tap a maple tree outside their sugar house on a recent Friday.

Chip Williams of the Williams Farm Sugar House in Deerfield and his son Miles Williams, 10, tap a maple tree outside their sugar house on a recent Friday. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Miles Williams, 10, taps a maple tree outside his family’s sugar house on a recent Friday.

Miles Williams, 10, taps a maple tree outside his family’s sugar house on a recent Friday. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Maple sap drips into a bucket at the Williams Farm Sugar House in Deerfield.

Maple sap drips into a bucket at the Williams Farm Sugar House in Deerfield. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Maple sap drips into a bucket at the Williams Farm Sugar House in Deerfield.

Maple sap drips into a bucket at the Williams Farm Sugar House in Deerfield. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Chip Williams of the Williams Farm Sugar House in Deerfield and his son Jacob Williams, 8, tap a maple tree outside their sugar house on a recent Friday.

Chip Williams of the Williams Farm Sugar House in Deerfield and his son Jacob Williams, 8, tap a maple tree outside their sugar house on a recent Friday. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Chip Williams of the Williams Farm Sugar House in Deerfield next to some maple syrup for sale.

Chip Williams of the Williams Farm Sugar House in Deerfield next to some maple syrup for sale. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

By DIANE BRONCACCIO

For the Gazette

Published: 03-03-2024 11:29 AM

Modified: 03-03-2024 11:32 AM


The groundhog predicted an early end to winter: did that also mean an earlier start to maple sugaring? Apparently so, according to several maple sugarers in the region.

“This is the earliest we’ve ever started,” remarked Chip Williams of the five-generation Williams Farm Sugarhouse in Deerfield. “We started tapping on Feb. 5 and boiled sap around the 11th,” he said. “So far, the syrup has been good.”

The Sugarhouse restaurant is already open on weekends. The farm generally produces between 1,500 and 2,000 gallons each sugaring season, Williams said. And an early start is generally more welcome than a later one, he noted.

“It seems to me any time the season is late, it’s hard to make up for what we’ve lost,” he said.

In Westhampton, Steve’s Sugar Shack owner Steve Holt said his first boil was the week of Feb. 18, and despite the brief spring-like spell this week, conditions looked good through this weekend.

“Ideally, we get six weeks,” he said of sugaring season. “Sometimes, we’ve had it stop in the middle of March.”

Holt, who has been sugaring for 50 years, has 1,000 taps out on lines and about 100 buckets. He handles all the work himself, with help from his brother Mike. The Sugar Shack restaurant is open weekends until the second week in April.

Though sugaring is entirely dependent on conditions and a warming climate might seem like a threat, Holt said 2023 was a record year for him. He made 472 gallons of syrup, versus around 350 in a normal year.

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“We had a lot of super runs,” he said, when the sap just keeps running — leading to a succession of 14-hour days on the job.

Since there’s no telling what the season will bring, he’s come up with a new slogan for the sugarmaker: “I’ll get what I’m given.”

On a day when a cold snap broke, Howard Boyden of Conway was checking for squirrel damage to his 3,500 sugar maple tree taps at Boyden Bros. Maple Farm.

“We’ve been frozen for a week, but now the sap is just starting to run,” said the maple producer in mid-February.

“We tapped and boiled three times already,” Boyden added. “We made about 153 gallons — about 15 percent of our crop. We usually do about a thousand gallons a year.”

“This is an earlier start date by about two weeks,” he remarked. “We started tapping (the trees) on Feb. 3 this year — and I usually start around Valentine’s Day.”

Despite the warmer winter and earlier start, “we still get those freeze-and-thaw cycles,” Boyden observed. “But some in Connecticut — poor things — only have a four-day season and they’re done — it gets too warm too soon.”

Boyden added that 40-50 years ago, he never started tapping the maple trees until mid-February.

Valcourt Sugar Shack owner Rich Valcourt taps between 1,200 and 1,500 trees each season, some on his land and others on nearby properties that he has agreements with. He said the warm weather didn’t impact his work too much, as he begins tapping in January and boiling in early February. This year, the first boil was done on Feb. 12.

“It’s so highly unpredictable,” Valcourt said. “The weather has been up and down.”

Valcourt said new technology, such as vacuum pumps for the trees, has made the process easier, and he saw his highest amount of syrup last year.

“It’s kind of like you don’t know until the season’s over,” Valcourt said. “It’s hard in the beginning to really say how things will shape up.”

A number of producers started tapping early this year, said Missy Leab, coordinator of the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association. One Worthington sugarer started boiling sap as early as Jan. 13, she said. Other Berkshire County sugarers started tapping their trees around Jan. 20.

“I think most of the smaller producers will start (tapping) around the end of February,” said Leab.

When producing maple syrup, timing is everything. First, the sugar maple trees must be at least 10 inches in diameter and healthy. According to Mass. Maple, it takes about 40 years of growth before a maple tree is ready for tapping. Tap too early and the frozen sap won’t flow. But late-winter’s freeze/thaw cycle of frigid nights and warmer days stimulates the flow of sap, which is only about 4 percent sugar. According to Mass. Maple, boiling about 40 gallons of sap makes one gallon of maple syrup, which is 33 percent water and 67 percent sugar. However, some sugarhouses use reverse osmosis filtration systems to eliminate some of the water and shorten the boiling time for the syrup.

Sugaring season generally lasts four to six weeks, depending on how quickly the weather warms up. The budding of maple leaves and daytime temperatures higher than 50 degrees generally bring the tapping season to an end. According to the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association, each tap hole will yield about 10 gallons of sap, which is a small portion of the tree’s total sap production. The average amount of syrup that can be made from this 10 gallons of sap is about 1 quart.

Athol Daily News Editor Max Bowen and Daily Hampshire Gazette staff writer James Pentland contributed to this article.