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An Unexpected Early Start to the Maple Season

Posted 2/5/2016 11:32am by The Webb Family.

About one week ago on January 28th, Tyler and I sat around the dinner table and debated over whether or not to start tapping our maple trees. The seven day forecast was showing not a single daytime temperature below freezing, which would have been normal if it were March. Unfortunately it was still January. It would be the earliest the Webb family would ever start tapping, and we discussed the pros and cons. After much debate, Tyler concluded that we stand a pretty good chance of missing a really great sap run if we don't act NOW. 

What is the downside of tapping this early? Some may argue that you run the risk of missing later runs during the 'regular' season. The reason? - once you drill a hole into the tree and insert the tap, you have created a wound. Compare this to a cut on your arm. Human blood begins to clot in order to prevent your arm from bleeding. The trees act in a similar way. Sap carries nutrients up to the crown of the tree, and when the tree is punctured, the sap eventually will begin to clot around that hole. When you are looking to pull that sap out of the tree, this isn't good. However, much research has been done and new technology has been developed. The introduction of new drop lines (connects the tap to the tubing) every 3-4 years and taps/spouts every year has helped keep things clean. We use spouts that contain a 'check valve' which lets sap run out of the tree but prevents any bacteria from entering the hole. This technology both protects the tree and enhances the collection of sap, hopefully avoiding any pre-mature healing and prolonging the maple season.


We are a small operation compared to many in VT/NH. We put in about 1,300 taps, while the large operations measure in the tens of thousands. Those maple operations were tapping already, but they need to start early at that kind of volume. It usually takes us about 3-5 days to tap our trees, fix damaged lines, and assure our vacuum lines are running correctly (for more info on this, you can read last year's blog - Preparing for Sugaring Season). So on Friday morning, January 29th, Ty went into the woods to begin the 2016 season. 


Over the course of three days, we installed 1,200 taps throughout our 12 acre sugarbush. By Sunday afternoon at 2pm, when we installed the last 200 taps, the sap was pouring out as we drilled the holes. It was also nearing 45 degrees, and it was only January 31st.


Tyler then spent the rest of the afternoon checking vacuum lines and tightening up the intricate system of tubing. We went to bed that night wondering if all this work would pay off or if it would be a big bust. 

By Monday afternoon, we had 750 gallons of sap at 1.9% sugar (an average measurement would be 2-2.5%) in the tank. For the first time ever, Harding Hill Farm boiled sap on February 1st. We sweetened our pans and made one and half gallons of fresh maple syrup. The quality was perfect, yielding a clear, light Grade A Amber Rich. Prior to 2016, the earliest boil on record was on February 18, 2012. 


By Tuesday, with sun and 40 degree temps, the sap was pouring into our tank at a rate of 80 gallons per hour. In the afternoon, it was probably closer to 100-125 gallons per hour. We boiled over 1,200 gallons of sap on Tuesday night, bringing our count to 23 gallons of syrup for the week.


On Wednesday, it rained. The raw, damp temperatures just above freezing caused the sap run to stop in its tracks… but Mother Nature was about to throw another curve ball at us. During the night, Wednesday into Thursday, temperatures rose to nearly 50 degrees. When Ty went out to check the tanks at 6:30am on Thursday morning, they had been overflowing for at least a couple hours. Around noon on Thursday, we began boiling around 1,400 gallons of sap. When we left the sugarhouse around 6:30 pm, we had managed to make just under 50 gallons of maple syrup this week. It wasn’t a bust!

This morning we woke up to 28 degrees and snowing...We are wondering if Mother Nature is drunk or just very confused.


However, we have a few hundred gallons of sap left from last night, so we will boil again with friends this evening. As we watch the forecast closely, we may get a bit more sap over the weekend, with a possibility of making syrup on Sunday. After that, things should slow down and freeze up… and then we wait. What will the rest of the season bring? How will our trees respond? We wait and hope for the best.