Weather keeps maplers guessing
By Jim Poole
If the weather is a capricious variable for farmers, it’s even more so for maple producers.
What started out as a prime sap season two weeks ago––cool nights, warmer days––has tempered somewhat as the late March weather swung too far one way or the other.
Still, producers believe the 2009 season, now in full swing, will be a solid one.
Two weeks ago, Caroline Foote of Maple Hill Farm in Cobleskill predicted a banner season. Then, Maple had boiled sap just twice but had already reached nearly a quarter of its 800-gallon goal.
The run slowed afterwards, though Ms. Foote remained optimistic.
“It’s slow but sort of steady,” she said. “We’re still producing, but the days have been too cold, and then too warm. But we’re farmers, so we just go with the flow, so to speak.”
Other producers agreed, pointing out that geography within the region means temperatures vary quite a bit.
Frank Brodie hadn’t started boiling sap in mid-March because his Brodie’s Sugar Bush in South Valley was colder than other areas. But the Everett family at Stone House Farm in Sharon, just a short distance from South Valley was in full swing last week, as was Shaver-Hill Farm, about 25 miles away, in Harpersfield.
Duane Hill of Shaver-Hill said Friday he’s already produced 1,400 gallons and is on target for the 2,500 he hopes to reach.
“The weather looks good this week,” Mr. Hill said. “It should be a little better than last year, but it could be a great year.”
“So far, so good, and it looks like it will continue,” agreed Patti Everett, whose farm has produced 385 of its 400-gallon goal.
The weather is out of producers’ control, and sometimes the market is, too. Canada produces 85 percent of the maple syrup supply and usually has a surplus each year.
But high demand depleted Canada’s surplus last year, driving up the price––in some areas to $70 or $80 per gallon.
“Everything disappeared last year,” Mr. Brodie said. “Canada was short, so they came to the States. The exchange rate was favorable, so they bought it.
“Supply was short, and that was driving the price.”
But Mr. Brodie said retail prices in this area won’t go through the roof. He estimated his at $48 per gallon, a little higher than last year.
Ms. Foote quoted the same price, noting the lower cost of fuel has helped keep the price down.
Mr. Hill was also “in the $50 range.
“We’re looking for the price to be pretty strong,” he added. “This is one of the few industries that’s thriving in these economic times.”
Ms. Everett came in with the lowest price of the producers contacted, $43 per gallon. She explained why.
“We have low overhead,” Ms. Everett said. “We burn wood so we don’t have to buy oil to boil sap.
“And it’s a family operation, so we don’t have to pay labor. We’re dairy farmers, too, so we’re used to working 24/7.”
Relatively stable prices are good news for consumers. Demand has already been strong, as demonstrated by high attendance at the statewide Maple Weekend hosted by many producers last weekend. A second is coming up this weekend. (More information on page 22.)
“We had over 600 people here,” Ms. Foote said. “It was phenomenal––a record turnout.”
Ms. Everett’s Stone House holds weekend pancake breakfasts, and she agreed with Ms. Foote.
“The breakfasts are going great,” she said. “Attendance is way up, so people are still coming out in these times.”
Mr. Hill also agreed that demand is strong but pointed out another phenomenon. Besides maple products, Shaver-Hill also sells equipment for maple production, and demand is up for that, too.
“We sell equipment for someone who’ll tap 20 to 50 trees on up to 20,000, and more people are coming in,” he said. “People are more interested now in where food comes from and want to fend for themselves.”
Although 2009 looks like a good year, producers won’t be sure for a few months, until their run is over and Canada’s is finished, too.
“We won’t know till the end of April, beginning of May,” Ms. Foote said. “Canada’s sap run goes to the end of April, so we won’t know the final price till then.”