Ohio producers enjoyed an almost “normal” season with the exception that everything happened a month early. This year’s long-term winter weather forecast was predicted to be a long, cold, and snowy winter. In the Northeast, that pattern prevailed due to a shift in the jet stream, but Ohio, West Virginia, Indiana, and parts of Pennsylvania were left with a rather mild winter. For the producers who were ready, conditions opened the door for some very good early maple syrup production in February. But the month of March saw an early warming trend that quickly brought the maple syrup season to an early conclusion across the region. Production across the state was all but shutdown by Saint Patrick’s Day. Looking at my records over the last several decades, Saint Patty’s day is circled in red because of the excellent runs occurring on or near that date – not this year. After several years where late tapping resulted in poor seasons, I feel that more producers across the Southern Tier of maple-producing states have learned to adjust their tapping to the weather and not the calendar. Thankfully, many sugarmakers I have talked with tapped at the right time in 2020 and had a very good to excellent season’s production.
Examples of this excellent production can be found across the state of Ohio. James Miller at Sugar Valley Farm set 3200 taps in January and over the 4th and 5th of February he collected over 14,000 gallons of sap. He set a personal best of 332 gallons of syrup. This pattern continued until the first week of March when the flow of sap stopped. Hit with an abnormally dry and warm period that lasted the rest of March, most trees dried up within a week. With the early start and despite the early shutdown, James ended the season with over a half gallon of syrup per tap. This was also the case for his neighbor The Gingerich Family. OMPA President Karl Evens reported a normal crop despite low sap sugar content. Down state producers reported excellent maple producing weather in the month of February. In Central Ohio’s Knox County, the Brown Family at Bonhomie Acres reported a near record crop. Further to the south in Mount Vernon, the Butcher Family set new production records after several years with below average production. Reports coming out of the southern parts of the state report excellent production, color, and flavor. A large percentage of the syrup made from south to north graded Golden and Amber. The flavor of first boils was superb, and low sap sugar content (between 1.3 and 1.6%) did not hamper production like it did back in 2018.
What can we learn from the 2020 season? First and foremost, weather forecasting is an exact science with a lot of room for error. The 2019-20 winter forecast for Ohio was about as far off as you can get; however, for many parts of the Northeast predictions were spot on. Probably the single most valuable tool a producer has to work with is experience. After years of experience making syrup, you just develop a feeling, almost a sixth sense when it is time to tap. The worst thing you can do is to second guess yourself. Wait too long and you can miss crucial runs. Tap too early and you may be headed for an early shutdown with a lot of season left. For sure, once you tapped there is no turning back and you must make the best of it. From that point to the end of the season, how you utilize modern maple technology will determine your level of success. Technology has become the great equalizer when it comes to maple syrup production in the 21st century.
Just as the maple syrup season was ending, COVID-19 cast an ominous shadow across the Buckeye State and the rest of the nation with huge disruptions to the economy. Agricultural sales, and certainly maple, were not immune. Many of the traditional points of sale, such as retail establishments, festivals, and farmers markets, were closed until further notice. Even though maple syrup was disappearing from the shelves of large grocery stores, giving the false appearance of a maple syrup shortage, nothing could be further from the truth. For small to medium size producers, it is a major challenge – near impossible in many cases – to tap into the mega supply chains. Many producers are worried that there will not be a market for their 2020 syrup crop. Hopefully as summer approaches, health regulations will be relaxed and maple producers will once again be able to market their products in traditional venues. Until then stay safe.