MEYERSDALE, Penn.—The maple trees in Western Pennsylvania may have put all their energy in reproduction last year instead of storing up extra sugar.
Many maple producers in Western Pennsylvania were reporting a low sugar content to start the season off in late January and early February.
With an unusually cold winter and temporary warm streaks here and there, the weather has played a big part in maple production in the Keystone State.
Mike Lynch of Somerset, Pa., who operates Baer Brothers Sugar Camp with his wife, Sherry, and sons, Cody and Reagan, travels throughout Pa. and Ohio as a sales representative for CDL-USA maple equipment.
He says it varies from region to region and while Western Pennsylvania may be ahead of other states at the start of the season, things can vary until March.
"Typically, the higher sugar content begins early in the season," he says. "Our first boil was a 1 percent on Jan. 17 and then it went up to 1.4 and now is at 1.2 so it's been going up and down."
Lynch believes that last spring has something to do with this year's maple season because of low sunlight and the unusual rainy season until mid-summer. He says producers need a lot more cold weather going into maple production and it got too warm at times in January and February. Plus, there was a heavy seed crop last year as well.
"The trees may have put their energy into reproduction instead of storing extra sugar," he concluded.
Roger and Cindy Newman, who live in Swanton, Md., operate Black Bear Maple Camp in Larimer Township, Pa., had their first boil on Jan. 28. They have 3,900 taps in Larimer Township, Somerset, Pa., and Accident, Md.
Newmans started for the first time in the maple business last year and they were pleased to make some syrup last season after finishing construction on their new camp.
Even though they are newcomers, Roger helped maple maple syrup years ago through the Mostoller family in Somerset years ago and always wanted to return to maple production.
"It wasn't cold enough long enough," said Roger. "Then, it was too hot at times. The buds came out early last year and that may have had an impact on now."
His wife, Cindy, who has been a big part of the new venture, says how maple production is a learning process and they are still in that phase.
"We were still constructing the camp last year so we didn't think we could boil but we started Feb. 15 of last year and now we up and running this year," said Cindy.
Don Jr. and Annette Knotts of Southampton Township, Pa., had all their tubing up but didn't start boiling until mid-February.
While Don works for CSX Railroad in Cumberland, Md., Annette drives school bus for Stewart Transportation out of Meyersdale, Pa. She also milked dairy cows for many years and they operate Knotts Livestock and Maple.
They live on the farm where the maple camp started through Annette's side of the Korns family. Her grandparents, Allen and Gladys Korns, started maple production on the same farm and Allen became Pa. Maple King in 1950 and 1952. Then, Annette's father, Melvin, who died in April 2016, served as maple king in 1957. Her brother, Warren Korns, was maple king in 1977.
Don Knotts remembers that his father-in-law Melvin told him how he tapped on Valentine's Day one year several decades ago and didn't gather until the middle of March because of poor weather conditions.
"We need freezing at night and a thaw in the day and some nights there isn't any freezing and then some days it never thaws," he reasoned. "Maple producers are constantly paying attention to the weather and they are at the mercy of it."
At Milroy Farms near Salisbury, Pa., Jason and Melissa Blocher started off this season quite differently than last year. Jason's father, longtime maple producer, Gary Blocher, died suddenly at 80 years old from an aneurysm last May.
Through Gary's maternal side, the Blochers have been producing maple syrup since the early to mid-1800s as part of Wagner maple operations. At Milroy, named for Gary's parents, Mildred and Roy, the camp goes back 75 years and Jason is a fifth-generation maple producer. Gary's wife, Frances, who died in 2012, was very active in the camp kitchen.
"Maybe these trees are frozen harder than we thought," said Jason. "Warmer weather coming up will bring the sugar content back up but Mother Nature may plan something different."
Milroy boiled for the first time on Jan. 28 and noticed right away that sugar content was lower than usual.
"While the average sugar content is about 2, anything over 2 percent is good but it recently dropped to 1.4," concluded Blocher. "For the last two years we have had a lower sugar content because, I believe, we didn't have much winter but this year we had cold weather but not much snow. Some years are like this and others are not. It just depends."