HEBRON, Conn. — “Probably the biggest news in Connecticut is that the season is off to an extremely slow start,” bemoaned Mark Harran, president of the Maple Syrup Association of Connecticut and a well-known sugar maker at Brookside Farm II in Litchfield.
The frigid temperatures this winter have wreaked havoc on the maple syrup season. But a sure sign that spring is on the way is the sight of maple syrup pipelines in backyards.
“It usually starts around the first of February and runs to April 1,” Harron said. “The latest I’ve ever gone is April 4.”
A good syrup run requires temperatures of 25 degrees at night with 40 degrees during the day; something Connecticut has not seen in some time. High temperatures earlier this week in the Northeast Corner didn’t even reach 32 degrees, with a low of 6 degrees at night. Temperatures are expected to increase this weekend, but may or may not stay above freezing.
“This will be a short season,” Harran said, “and it could be a poor season. Fortunately, it’s coming on the heels of maybe the best season ever for Connecticut, maybe for the whole maple belt. We do still have a surplus from last year.”
Harran said that sugar makers in the Nutmeg State might still have a booming last two weeks, but once nighttime temperatures stay above freezing, the sap stops flowing.
“When baseball season starts, we stop,” he said.
When forecasters announced that temperatures might be in the 50s for the first day of the 24th annual Hebron Maplefest on Saturday, March 8, the possibility of a sugar shortage failed to deter the usual throngs of visitors who pack the town green to check out local vendors, sample sweets and enjoy the sun, while others stopped by nearby sugarhouses to see how syrup is made.
“It’s just great weather,” said Kathy Smith, customer relations representative with the Farmer’s Cow, a Connecticut dairy cooperative.
Smith and her crew were scooping up Farmer’s Cow “Sugar Shack Maple Walnut” or “Hay! Hay! Hay! Vanilla” topped with Graywall Farms maple syrup and other favorite toppings, and sales were through the roof.
“It’s popular today,” she said. “More than we expected Everybody had cabin fever and came out to get their natural vitamin D.”
Usually, Sugar Shack Sundaes are given away, but this year, the Farmer’s Cow decided to try something new and charged a small fee, offering 25 percent of the profits to the Hebron Open Space Land Acquisition Fund. According to a press release, $850 was raised.
“Participating in Maplefest was an opportunity to be a part of a real local event and give back to the community at the same time,” said Robin Chesmer, managing member of The Farmer’s Cow. “Not only does Maplefest support local farming, but it is also a fun and delicious way for people to support open space and farmland preservation.”
Other favorites on the green included maple milk, grilled offerings from local veterans organizations, maple cannoli and traditional sugar-on-snow, complete with a slice of pickle.
Just down the road at the Wenzel Sugarhouse, Diane Miller of Fairvue Farms in Woodstock and Ned Ellis of Mapleleaf Farm in Hebron, both members of the Farmer’s Cow, spoke about the joys of being a farmer.
Mapleleaf Farm has been in the Ellis Family since the 1800s.
“I’m very fortunate,” Ellis said, “to be able to be a good steward of the land that God’s given us.”
Nearby, young children and families from area towns admired a large cow. The Rottinghaus family, visiting from New London, are no strangers to agriculture, but were experiencing bovine up close for the first time.
One man from Glastonbury admired Albert, a new bull, resting quietly in the sun.
“I guess they come out with hooves,” he wondered aloud.
“People don’t know what a cow is,” Ellis said. “They can come here, see a cow, see a chicken. We can talk to them about that.”
Up a small, hay-covered path and into the sugar shack was Ron Wenzel.
“It takes 45-50 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup,” Wenzel said, answering questions from the group. He continued discussing the number of buckets he has out — 400 — how long it takes for a tapped hole to grow over — six to eight weeks — and he explained that in New England, sugarhouses tap on all sides of the tree, something not considered everywhere.
Taps are rotated each year and the new tap is placed as far away from the previous year’s tap as possible.
Wenzel admitted that the typically maple-scented steam rising up the boiler was not what it should be.
“This is the first year in 25 years that I have not made syrup in February,” he said. What was in the boiler? Only water.
A fledgling sugar maker asked, “How do you know when to stop?”
“If I won’t drink it,” Wenzel responded, “I won’t put it in that evaporator. If it’s sour, you can tell. It’s just awful. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist.”
Wenzel acknowledged that very little to no money will be made this year, but that’s not important to him.
“I don’t do this for the money,” he said. “I do this because I like it. It’s a disease.”
Check out the Hebron Maplefest, with links to local Connecticut sugarhouses, at www.hebronmaplefest.com.