Photo caption: Red Maple in Middlefield Township, Geauga County, Ohio, March 1, 2017
It is March 2nd, and we have just witnessed the warmest February on record in the Cleveland area. The 77 degree day that we experienced on Friday, February 24th, shattered every record for a high temperature in the month of February, and it was also the highest winter temperature in Cleveland for any winter month. The way the month of February ended cast a dark shadow on our ability to make maple syrup in Ohio. Now we are in March and the cold temperatures have come back but where does that leave us?
Many trees have already budded out. All of the silver maple and many red maples that are out in the open have full buds. The sugar maples though have not yet budded and this is one of the main reasons why we prize and select for this species of maple. Given the conditions we have had to date, one thing is for certain – if you have not tapped yet, the potential to make a significant amount of syrup is gone. The next warm spell will likely end the season for everyone.
Now let’s address the producers that have been making syrup and have the potential to make more syrup. If you have red maples, make sure you look at them very carefully or just pull the taps, especially trees in the open such as along a field edge or road side. Several producers with large populations of reds have called it quits altogether due to budding. For those with sugar maples, the potential is there to make more syrup, but you need to be careful not to spoil that sap by collecting sap from red maples too that have already budded.
At this point, a producer’s biggest enemy is bacteria. Everything needs to be cleaned out and drained. You could literally see high levels of bacteria building in the lines and tanks over the previous week of warm weather. Many producers just kept the vacuum pumps running during that period and hoped for the best. Many collected a fair amount of sap due to weather fronts that pushed through. I am certain it paid to operate the pumps keeping lines clear and tapholes as cool as possible. If you shut off the vacuum because the trees quit running, I hope you were using check valves because this would have given you some degree of bacterial protection at the taphole.
Now that the cold weather has returned, what kind of syrup will we make? The answer will come once your fire up the evaporator. If the sap is “buddy”, you will know it. And if it’s not, you’ll most likely be producing a darker grade of syrup. That is not necessarily bad because most producers made a good batch of Golden Delicate early on. If the producer chooses, the two could be blended but taste will determine that. You can blend for color but you cannot blend for taste. If your syrup has a slight off flavor from sour sap or budding, it will show up in the blended grade. There is virtually no way to mask a syrup’s off flavor once it is there, and there is no reason to ruin good syrup that you have already made. That is why some producers already chose to call it quits rather than risking a batch of off-flavored in the sugarhouse.
Producers that tapped in early January have had an average season. The biggest question is, after last year and this year, have we established a new normal for Ohio maple syrup production or maybe the two distinct zones of production in Ohio are just consolidating. I say this because if you produce syrup near the Ohio River, you would normally tap in January. If you live in NE Ohio you would normally tap in mid-February. Maybe we are now seeing a climate shift that will establish a universal tapping date for the entire state. After this year, producers must finally realize one can no longer tap solely by the calendar. If you produce maple syrup in Ohio, you must to be ready to go by New Year’s Day. If the season does not start until February, so be it – but at least you will be ready. Climate change is just that – change, and the only certainty in life is change. We change our systems, we change our tapping technology, we adapt.