By ADAM DRAPCHO, LACONIA DAILY SUN
New England's maple sugarers accomplish what medieval alchemists sought to do: start with a basic ingredient – in this case, tree sap – and turn it into something valuable. In New Hampshire, syrup is thought to have added $175 million to the local economy, mostly through small, family producers tapping trees on their own property and boiling the sap, some in much the same way it's been done for generations, others by utilizing the most modern equipment available.
Unlike the secretive alchemists of yore, local maple syrup producers are throwing open their doors to share their product and explain how they make it. The annual maple weekend is being held March 19 and 21, and the New Hampshire Maple Producers Association website shows 19 Lakes Region sap houses participating.
For a map of participating sap houses, visit www.nhmapleproducers.com.
Maple syrup can only be produced in the northeastern United States and southeastern Canada, because this is the only part of the world where sugar maples grow and there is a period of several weeks each spring when temperatures rise above freezing during the day but drop below freezing at night, the precise temperature fluctuation which causes the tree's sap to flow.
As the climate changes, local syrup producers have to stay on their toes in order to catch the sap while it's flowing.
"I'm a firm believer that climate change is here," said Jeff Keyser, farmer at the Ramblin' Vewe sheep farm on Morrill Street in Gilford.
Keyser grew up in Sanbornton, and remembers tagging along with a maple sugar operation as a very young child.
"It was the first exposure to agriculture I had as a kid, I was 3 or 4 years old," he said.
Ramblin' Vewe's main products are wool and lamb. Keyser had been sugaring at another farm he worked at earlier, and he decided to add sugaring at Ramblin' Vewe, drawing sap from 212 taps.
"I realized how much I missed it," he said.
Keyser is boiling sap in a home-brewed evaporator placed within sight of the sheep barn, so he can tend to his sugaring while caring for his animals. Keyser's set-up is old-fashioned, with gravity-fed tubes collecting the sap and a wood stove heating his sap. However, he sees the merit in the more sophisticated technology some of his peers employ.
"I think, down the road, a lot of people are going to a vacuum system. That seems to be the way to go. We aren't getting the runs we used to get," he said.
At Maple Ridge Sugar House in Loudon, the husband and wife team of Miranda Milano and Pat Colby, both in their early 30s, embraced the latest available technology when they renovated Milano's grandparents' sugaring operation six years ago. Vacuum lines pull sap from about 6,000 taps. The sap is then run through a reverse-osmosis device, which concentrates the sap from about 2 percent sugar content to nearly 20 percent, greatly reducing the amount of time the sap needs to be boiled. Then, the concentrated sap is fed into an oil-fired, locomotive-sized evaporator, which can produce as much as 80 gallons of syrup per hour.
The renovations made at Maple Ridge, said Milano, not only enhanced their production capabilities, they also maximized educational opportunities. Those that visit this weekend will have a chance to take a tour through the woods to watch the sap come out of the tree, see how it flows into the evaporator room, and watch it boil into syrup.
"They can literally go from beginning to end," she said.
Last year, Milano said, Maple Ridge set a new record by producing 1,800 gallons of syrup, which was sold as-is, or converted into crystalized maple sugar, or mixed with butter to make a sweet, creamy spread. This season might be as productive, but it's been on a much different schedule.
In the 2015 season, sap wasn't flowing until March. This year, Milano said they already had produced their first gallon in February.
"We are a month and a half ahead," she said. "You never know, each year is different."
Barbara Proulx, of Just Maple in Tilton, said she noticed the sap running in January this year, much earlier than usual, and she's glad she did.
"If you didn't tap out at that point, you kind of missed out on the season," she said.
Proulx traces her maple career to a 4-H project one of her children completed. She had always enjoyed the maple sugaring industry from the outside, and once she realized that she could make her own syrup, she was hooked.
At her shop, on School Street, Proulx sells every kind of maple product imaginable. Much of the product she makes herself, and those that she didn't were made by another local, small producer.
Business, she said, has been "Tremendous. Some of it is the buy-local thing ... The local people have totally supported us."
It's not just the locals who have developed a taste for maple syrup – Robyn Pearl, publicist for the New Hampshire Maple Producers Association, said chefs and food connoisseurs around the world see the commodity's value.
"The industry as a whole is increasing in demand," said Pearl. "There is a great deal of demand overseas because it is novel."
A gallon of syrup goes for about $60, she said, and last year the state produced 150,000 gallons. While the season's schedule has been unusual this year, Pearl said most sugarers were able to get their trees tapped in time.
"It seems that as it's trending right now, people are seeing an average to above-average season."
Sandwich resident Martha Carlson, who researched sugar maples as part of a Ph.D. program at UNH, and continues to assist other researchers, said sugarers should continue to expect the unexpected as far as future sugaring seasons go. In her research, she sought to find out how local sugar maples respond to stressors presented by a changing climate.
"It's not so much global warming in New England as it is global weirding," Carlson said. The changing climate, she said, is likely to result in greater and more frequent weather fluctuations, such as the very cold winter of 2014-2015, followed by the very warm 2015-2016 winter.
"People have to really be watching the weather and run out and tap as soon as they can," she said.
As the industry has become more lucrative, sugarers have taken steps to protect their yield. Those steps include the use of vacuum systems, which will extract more sap in less-than-ideal conditions, as well as steps that protect the health of their trees. Syrup producers, who used to put several taps on big trees, are now more likely to put only one tap on each tree. They are also selectively thinning their sugarbush – the plot of forest containing their sugar maples – to reduce the maples' competition for sunlight, water and nutrients.
It's not the winters that worry Carlson. She said, "The main stressors we've seen for the maples is the weird droughts we've had."
The trees especially need water then they are putting out their leaves – if they can't grow leaves, they can't use the sunlight to synthesize the sugar they need to live. In recent years, there have been long dry periods followed by heavy rains, when the rain falls faster than the ground can absorb it. Carlson suggested that farmers could dam the small streams running through their sugarbush, causing the water to flood and soak into the soil.
"We're taking better care of the trees," Carlson said. She's optimistic that, if humans around the world can reduce consumption of fossil fuels, the maple sugar industry will find a way to survive.
"You can look at how resilient the tree is, and working with all the syrup producers, how resilient they are, so I have to be optimistic. I think we'll be OK."
Pat Colby and Miranda Milano, of Maple Ridge Sugar House in Loudon, hope to make more than 1,800 gallons of syrup this year. (Laconia Daily Sun photo/Adam Drapcho)