It's mid-February in Swanzey, NH and the crocuses are already starting to poke through the soil. There is no snow to block them from the sunlight this year.
In fact, we've really only had two significant snowstorms this winter. The first was a freak storm on Halloween. Many of the trees still had their leaves on them, so the heavy snow brought down a lot of branches. Then in early December we had a decent snowfall, but our hopes for a white Christmas were dashed when it was mostly melted by the holidays.
Now spring is the air. The showers yesterday had the scent of a spring rain. The cold gusts of wind were little more than a cool breeze. It all makes me wonder about the maple syrup harvest this year. Here is a picture from last March (2011), where you can see tin buckets hanging from a line of maple trees in front of the Bridges Inn.
The sap runs up the maple tree, from the roots out to the branches. It is a sugary-mixture that will turn into leaves. Warm days draw it upwards and cold nights send it back underground. There is a brief window in mid-to-late March when conditions are just right to collect it. During this time, every maple tree in New Hampsire sports an icon bucket, or else is connected to a central barrel through a network of hoses. After collection, there is a frenzy of boiling (which is why it is not practical for me to make my own syrup- those buckets belong to a neighbor). Some producers keep a fire burning for weeks on end, over which they are constantly cooking down sap. It takes about 20 gallons of sap to make a single gallon of syrup.
This has been the case for nearly four hundred years. According to forrester Steven Roberge, of the UNH Cooperative Extension:
"Native Americans taught Europeans how to make maple SUGAR. I say sugar because the in the colony times we didn't have containers to hold syrup effectively without it spoiling. It wasn't until the tin container was invented (around the Civil War) that syrup was produced. Natives would used dug out logs to hold the sap and then drop red hot rocks from the fire into the sap causing it to boil. When the rocks cooled off, they would take them out and repeat. until most of the water was gone and the thick syrup cooled to set sugar. Quite often colonist would make molds or forms to pour the molten sugar in. The most common were crosses and caskets for ceremonies.
European brought over cast iron kettles that made the process a more efficient but still made sugar - hence "Maple Sugaring"
Thomas Jefferson - for the sake of national security - wanted to become self-sufficient in sugar production so he encouraged everyone to make maple sugar instead of importing it from the Caribbean and really on foreign countries (sounds like something familiar today!)"
What will happen this year? Will the trees bud too early? Will the nights be cold enough to encourage the flow of sap? We'll have to follow up on this story. Check back to this blog soon to read more about our interviews with local maple syrup producers.