Waiting For Sap

By BEN KLEIN

bklein@timesobserver.com

The only good thing about tapping maple trees with snow on the ground is you can see where you’ve been.

For maple syrup producers in Warren County, the forecast of nearly 40 degrees on Friday may just signal the start of the near month-long production season.

The season typically lasts from mid-February to early April, but at Will Hitchcock’s dairy farm on Old State Road in Lander, the wood shed is full, most of the trees have been tapped and the lines have been checked.

Now, Hitchcock, his son Travis, brother Dave and father Delmer are preparing and waiting until the weather hits the sweet spot of about 40 degrees so the sap will flow.

“For it to run it has to be 40, then higher 20s at night. It has to freeze at night and get warm during the day,” Hitchcock said. “I looked in my book and actually it was like March 7 a couple years ago when we started. So, I guess we aren’t late…usually its the end of February, it can even be the beginning of February.”

The three of them, with Delmer running the sugar shack, are responsible for nearly 2,000 taps.

While the weather may make things a little more difficult, this year they have some new additions to their maple syrup production.

Hitchcock purchased a vacuum pump to suck the sap right out of the trees through tubing, which he said is supposed to double the amount of sap produced, but he’s not sure how it will work this year.

Over the last ten years there has been “a lot of new stuff” for producers, he said. It was about 20 years ago when Hitchcock switched from collecting sap in buckets hanging from the trees to the plastic tubing that runs to one central location.

Since he was working with his father producing maple syrup, Hitchcock has seen the changes from horses to a tractor to transport sap, hand cranked drills to electric drills, from 2,500 buckets to hundreds of gallons fed by nearly 2,000 taps.

Now he uses check valves – little black plastic taps combined with the vacuum he says prevents bacteria from stopping the flow of sap.

“What you put in the tree is a check valve; what makes sap quit running is bacteria gets in the tree and plugs everything up and these don’t – the sap can’t get back into the tree to do that,” he said.

The Hitchcocks sell maple syrup locally and the rest is purchased by bulk buyers, he said.

“Nobody’s made any that I know, we’re the only ones I’ve heard that’s made any,” Hitchcock said about production so far this year. “They can’t believe we made any yet.”

About two weeks ago it warmed up enough to produce seven gallons, he said.

“Big deal,” he said.

The vacuum is set up on a separate property they lease, with a 600-gallon tank to collect sap, and the rest on his farm collects in a 300-gallon tank.

Once the temperature rises and the sap starts to flow, Hitchcock, his brother and son will have to “walk the lines” to make sure there are no leaks or a branch has fallen on the tubes.

“You constantly have to come out and make sure there’s no leaks, and with the vacuum that’s even more critical,” Hitchcock said.

Now, all they need is a break in the weather.

“The wood shed is full, just waiting,” he said.