Farmers and politicians give predictions on sugaring

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(Host) Mild temperatures brought visitors by the thousands to Vermont’s sugarhouses this weekend for the second annual statewide maple open house. In colder areas, the sap that makes the syrup was running well-to-moderately. But in many parts of the state, sugar makers are worried that the warm weather, coupled with a late start, could cut the season short.

VPR’s Susan Keese reports:

(Keese) Like many Vermont sugar makers, Don Hazelton knows how to make the best of good company.

(Hazelton, clanking poker) "You had the quart right?" (Sound of sap boiling)

(Keese) Visitors have been stopping by Hazleton’s roadside sugarhouse in Dummerston all weekend. Some are here because of the statewide maple open house. Others are regulars who visit every spring. The visitors hover over the frothing evaporator breathing in the sweet sap smell. They watch while Hazelton draws off warm, freshly made syrup from a metal tank into plastic jugs.

(Hazelton) "That one’s going to be hot."

(Keese) Hazelton says his sap is sweet this year, though the color is a bit dark. Of more concern is the fact that he’s only been boiling for about a week.

(Hazelton) "It’s kind of a funny year, it’s late. I tapped the latest I ever had, and my first boil was the latest and my records go back to ’47."

(Keese) Now with a sudden onslaught of warm days and balmy nights, Hazleton fears his season could be almost over. At a gathering of maple producers Friday, Shaftsbury sugar maker Rick Kobik had similar worries. Kobik says nights above freezing and overly warm days, especially with a south wind, can make the sap stop flowing. Once the buds swell on the maples, the season is finished.

(Kobik) "We’re a little nervous about this warm weather. It looks like we have a stretch of warm weather and we really need the cool nights, and I don’t see them in the forecast."

(Keese) Kobik was one of more than a 100 maple producers at Friday’s ceremonial tree-tapping at Arlington’s West Mountain Inn. Vermont Governor Jim Douglas also found time to travel south for the lunchtime event. Even with the recent heightened homeland security alert and a legislative struggle brewing over Act 60, Douglas says sugar making is always a Vermont priority.

(Douglas) "Maple syrup is the first crop of our season. It’s an important part of our economy. The industry pumps about a quarter of a billion dollars a year into the economy of our state. It’s an important part of our culture. We’re the largest producer in the nation and we, of course, are the best."

(Keese) Douglas said it’s still too early to judge this season’s prospects, especially since syrup production varies so much around the state. Maple producer Jacques Couture agrees. Couture, who taps about 4,500 trees on his dairy farm in Westfield, is the current president of the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association. Couture started boiling in earnest last week, around the same time as Hazelton, several hours south.

(Couture) "It feels like we’re a little bit late but for now it’s way too early to get discouraged about the crop. I live in northern Vermont right near the Canadian border. This is right on target. We make most of our syrup the last week of March the first week of April. So we’re right on the money."

(Keese) Many sugar makers said they didn’t expect as good a year as 2002. Stephen Kerr is the Vermont commissioner of agriculture.

(Kerr) "Last year was an exceptional year . Good quality syrup and lots and lots of it. The downside of that, it was a good year in a lot of places too, so there’s a fair amount of inventory to be carried over from last year to this year. But we’ll work that off."

(Keese) Kerr says last year’s surplus makes it hard to predict this year’s prices.

(Kerr) "Because in fact, Quebec carries a heck of an inventory and you’re never quite sure what they’re going to do with it. So we hope they’ll hold it off so that prices don’t collapse the way that milk prices have collapsed. But I think any sugar maker will tell you, particularly a little bit father north, that there’s plenty of season left. All we need is a right break or two and we can make an awful lot of syrup."

(Keese) And that will make a lot of people happy. (Sound of sap dripping in buckets.)

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese.

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