Boiling away

Part-time maple syrup producer Steve Weber of Harrisville gathers wood for his evaporator on an afternoon in 2018. He said the production during that sugaring season was so good people couldn’t keep up. Not so this year, with weather shortening the season.

Despite a relatively short sugaring season caused by uncooperative weather, maple producers in the Monadnock Region still say they’re generally optimistic about the business, in part due to pandemic-related increases in demand for locally made syrup.

“Well, until about halfway through March, it was frozen all the time. And of course, if it stays frozen, the sap won’t run out of the trees,” said Bruce Bascom, president of Bascom Maple Farms in Acworth. “... [Recently] it’s been too hot during the daytime, a lot of 60-degree days.”

Ideally, he said, overnight temperatures would be 20 to 25 degrees, with daytime temperatures between 40 and 45. So, sugaring season in New Hampshire — which typically starts in late February and runs through early April — got off to a late start, and it’s heading toward an early finish.

“It’s pretty finicky,” Bascom said. “It’s a pretty high-risk crop, since you don’t know what the weather will be.”

As a result, syrup production at Bascom Maple Farms, the area’s largest producer with roughly 110,000 taps, will probably be down this year, though it’s still a bit too early to tell, Bascom said. The farm typically produces about 45,000 gallons of syrup a year, but thus far only has about 28,000 gallons, about 10,000 fewer than the same time last year.

“But I’m not really a pessimist,” Bascom said, adding that about one out of every 10 years ends up like this.

Karen Keurulainen, who with her husband John owns Morning Star Maple in Dublin, said this is the worst sugaring season they’ve had since the 2008 ice storm struck New England. Morning Star taps about 3,800 trees and produced 1,200 gallons of syrup last year but is on track to make only half as much this year, Keurulainen said.

“It is farming, after all. You’re not guaranteed anything, so you just take your licks and move on,” she said. “... We had a decent season last year, so we had some syrup to bring into this year. So I think we’ll be fine.”

Overall, the Granite State produced 154,000 gallons of maple syrup last year, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, making it an average year, the Concord Monitor reported. Maple syrup production requires about 40 gallons of sap to produce 1 gallon of syrup.

The COVID-19 pandemic also upended daily life in New Hampshire in the middle of sugaring season last year. As a result, Goosebrook Meadows Sugarhouse in Harrisville actually saw an increase in sales last year, according to Doug Byam, who owns the sugar house with his wife, Kelly.

“It’s actually improved my retail sales,” he said of the coronavirus outbreak. “… People don’t want to go into big stores. They’d rather stop at my little roadside stand.”

Goosebrook Meadows Sugarhouse taps about 1,000 trees and typically produces about 200 gallons of syrup per year, Byam added. At Morning Star Maple, Karen Keurulainen said she’s seen increased enthusiasm for customers buying locally made products during the pandemic, and a loyal clientele has helped keep their year-round sugar house and gift shop going.

Larger producers like Bascom Maple Farms, which does about 98 percent of its business through wholesale transactions with grocery stores nationwide, have also seen a boost from the pandemic

“What’s happened is nationwide, there’s more people eating meals at home,” Bruce Bascom said “… The sales [of maple syrup] are actually up.”

Stuart & John’s Sugar House and Restaurant in Westmoreland, meanwhile, saw a decrease in business last year, according to Alisha Powell, the daughter of co-owner Stuart Adams, who also helps oversee the syrup-making process. The business missed out on some of its biggest weekends of the year due to the COVID-19 shutdown, she said.

The restaurant reopened over the summer, with social distancing measures in place, before closing for the winter, as it normally does, Powell added. They’ve been able to reopen every weekend this spring, and despite the decreased capacity due to pandemic protocols, Powell said Stuart & John’s has seen a jump in takeout orders, which the restaurant really didn’t have before the pandemic.

Overall, despite the ups and downs of unpredictable New England weather, and the lingering pandemic, Bascom said he’s hopeful about the future of New Hampshire’s maple industry. After all, he noted, his family has been making syrup here since 1853.

“I’m a long-term optimist,” he said.

Jack Rooney can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1404, or jrooney@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @RooneyReports.