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Sugarmakers get a jump on early syrup season

Union Leader Correspondent

March 07. 2018 9:23PM
Pinkerton Academy senior Haley Robbins smiles and bobs her head back as she works at the school's evaporator. Roughly a dozen students on Monday help operate the academy sugarhouse. (CHRIS GAROFOLO/UNION LEADER)

Michelle Mize, an instructor of environmental studies and forestry at Pinkerton Academy, checks the temperature of the sugary product on Monday. She and about a dozen students work the academy’s evaporator to produce maple syrup. CHRIS GAROFOLO/union leader CORRESPONDENT

DERRY — Michelle Mize knows the Chester-based Folsom’s Sugar House traditionally puts out their buckets around Valentine's Day, signaling the start of the sugaring season in southern New Hampshire. But while driving by in early February, she noticed sugarmaker Brian Folsom had tapped his maples long before reaching his yardstick calendar date.

“When I saw his buckets out a week early, I said I better get going. That’s such a standard for him,” Mize said. “If he’s thinking it’s time to go, then it’s time to go.”

Sugarmakers in the Merrimack Valley have had to get a jumpstart on the maple syrup rush after an early tapping season. While there are several weather-related variables involved in the science and institutional knowledge of crafting maple syrup, the fluctuating temperatures have sped up the timetable for many sugarhouses.

Mize, the environmental studies and forestry instructor at Pinkerton Academy, had to call in two students during the winter break to help with collecting the sap around Greater Derry.

“I wanted to put it off until after vacation. Unfortunately, you can’t decide when you’re going to make it happen,” she said.

Chilly, windless nights and 40-degree days are required for sap to run. With temperatures at times in February reaching late spring figures in the 60s, some sap-collectors were left scrambling.

Tim Sullivan, a Derry resident and physical education teacher who produces syrup at the Sununu Youth Services Center in Manchester, also tapped around the same time as Mize. He usually makes about 50 gallons each year, but already has about 30 completed.

“The way its looking the next couple weeks, it’s going to run nice,” Sullivan said.

Overlapping with northern New England’s infamous mud season, tapping is an annual rite for many small producers. The yo-yoing weather patterns, however, have made it more challenging for the little guy.

“I’m not rushing on it because we’re not going to get much anytime soon,” said John Soucy, a retiree who operates Soucy's Sugar Shack in Londonderry with his family. “We don’t expect much this year.”

An underused gazebo in Soucy’s backyard has been transformed into a sugarhouse, complete with a set of vintage snowshoes on both sides of the entrance. He uses an old fireplace insert to boil the sap; there’s also a space where he roasts peanuts during the process.

For him, producing maple syrup doesn’t make an income. He does it for his friends and family, and to keep his “kids out of trouble,” he says with a smile.

“I’ve been doing this since we moved in 30 years ago,” he said. “I enjoy doing it.”

Like the Soucys, Anne Peterson of Peterson Sugar House, located on a picturesque 10-acre farm in Londonderry, said its break-even at best for small producers.

“A lot of these small ones, they’re just doing it for themselves and their friends,” she added. “You gotta be big.”

She operates a typical, old-fashioned sugarhouse. There are tatty news clippings and blue ribbons along the wall, giving it a quaint quality visitors look for during the upcoming Maple Weekend. This year it is scheduled for March 24-25.

In the week before the nor’easter, temperatures in the evening made it challenging for smaller producers in the southern part of the Granite State to effectively collect the sap.

“It’s going to be short for us. Up north was pretty good because they started early,” Peterson said. “It’s warming up way too quick.”

Mize and her students at Pinkerton have had a solid season at the new state-of-the-art sugarhouse on campus.

Two “epic sap runs” in the past week – collecting from about 270 buckets – along some newly acquired properties tapped this year led to a better than expected yield, she said. Students are allowed to go off campus during free periods to tap more trees and collect the sap.

“I haven’t seen a haul like that in probably seven years,” Mize said. “I think we’re going to have a really good year … I think we’re at almost a record amount for sap.”

In what is likely the sweetest-smelling classroom in the state, about a dozen students on Monday afternoon participated in every aspect of the syrup-making process – some chopped and hauled wood to feed the evaporator’s fire. Each student gets a share of the product, as do landowners, once the season is over.

New Hampshire sugarmakers on average will churn out around 70,000 to 90,000 gallons of maple syrup each year, making it one of the top producers in the country. Neighboring Vermont overshadows the rest of the country, leading all producers with more than 500,000 gallons annually.

Environment Tourism Winter Fun Derry Londonderry

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