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Maple Sugar Season Officially Opens

February 28, 2000

NORTH BROOKFIELD, Mass. (AP) _ Never mind the lingering snow banks. Forget the freezing rain.

The sure sign of spring in New England is the sweet smell of maple sap being boiled into syrup.

And so state Agriculture Commissioner Jonathan Healy, armed with a gubernatorial proclamation, marched out in the slush Friday to kick off a month-long promotion of Massachusetts’ sugar houses with a ceremonial tree tapping at the Warren Farm & Sugarhouse.

The tapping with Healy manning the drill, state Sen. Stephen Brewer, D-Barre, pounding in the tap and state Rep. David Tuttle, R-Barre, hanging the bucket, marked the first time the state has officially kicked off the season.

And it gave Massachusetts maple sugarers a political jump on Vermont, the nation’s sugaring and syrup-promoting king.

In Vermont, where spring comes later, Gov. Howard Dean isn’t scheduled to ceremonially tap a tree until March 13. Vermont produces about a third of the nation’s syrup and its sugarers boiled up 370,000 gallons of the sweet stuff last year.

Massachusetts’ more than 200 sugarers produced about 44,000 gallons of syrup last year, ninth in the nation. But nearly two-thirds of their syrup is sold retail directly on the farm and syrup-related tourism has grown into a $16 million to $19 million business, Healy said.

In hopes of attracting more city folks this spring, country inns and restaurants are teaming up with sugar houses in a first-time promotion featuring fancy cooking with Massachusetts maple syrup.

``We want to take maple syrup beyond breakfast,″ said Janice Wentworth, who runs the Warren Farm with her husband, Dale. ``It’s a great natural flavoring and the chefs have really gotten excited. They’ve come up with all sorts of new and old ways to use it in traditional and nouvelle cuisine.″

That includes maple duck tacos and maple fettuccini, she said.

``March is usually a slow time and this really can bring out people,″ said Heather Salem, of the Salem Cross Inn in West Brookfield, which has come up with a maple pumpkin cheesecake with pecan sauce.

While some sugarers on valley farms are already boiling, most on mountain farms are still tapping, said J.P. Welch of Worthington, president of the Massachusetts Maple Sugar Producers Association.

``We’re poised,″ said Russ Davenport of Shelburne, whose trees are still buried deep in snow. ``All we need is another string of warm, dry days with some nice afternoon sun and 5-mile-an-hour breeze from the west.″

For starters. Once it warms up enough to start the sap flowing, sugarers need a chancy mix of warm days in the 40s and nights with below-freezing temperatures to keep the trees from budding and prolong the syrup season that, at most, lasts a few weeks.

Last year, production was down across most of New England, except for Maine, as temperatures zipped from too warm in February to too cold in March.

``It’s too hard to predict,″ said Arthur Berndt, president of Maverick Sugarbush in Sharon, Vt., the state’s largest. ``We don’t know what kind of weather is coming along. The ground is frozen pretty hard, so it might take a while to get going here.″

Still, Hank Peterson, secretary of the New Hampshire Maple Producers Association, was optimistic about this year’s run because of last fall’s hurricane-borne heavy rains.

``One of the old Yankee sayings is: `If the trees go to bed in the fall with wet feet, we’ll have a good year,‴ he said.

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