Maple Weekend is usually at the pinnacle of Steve Savage’s sugaring operation.
By late March, the owner of Peaceful Valley Maple Farms in Johnstown ordinarily has a few thousand gallons of premium syrup cooked down already and another 10,000-plus gallons of sap ready to boil each day. But with the brutal winter and prolonged cold weather, Savage ended up collecting 2,000 gallons of sap before the weekend — enough to make just about 50 gallons of syrup for the New York State Maple Producers Association’s exhibition weekend.
“It’s been horrible weather,” he said Sunday, as sweet maple-scented steam poured from the top his wood-fired evaporator. “It’s been too cold.”
With 28 years of sugaring experience, Savage is used to riding the fine line that exists between perfect and terrible conditions. Warm days and cold nights are ideal for tapping maple sap.
When the mercury rises too high during the day, the trees bud start to bud, which brings an abrupt end to the season. When it falls too low, the sap flow slows to a crawl or stops altogether.
“By the time it gets warm enough in the day to thaw anything out, it’s 3:30 or 4:30 in the afternoon,” Savage said.
And that’s the case this year. He began tapping trees in January, but didn’t collect enough sap to boil until Feb. 23.
“I’ve only boiled three times since then,” he said. “Last year, I boiled almost every day.”
Watching the weather evolve this winter has been tough for Savage just like all maple producers in the Northeast. But the harsh winter could portend a prolonged season if the rest of March and much of April remain cool at night.
Peaceful Valley’s 90 acres of trees still have a nice snow pack around their roots, which could help keep conditions good well into April. Right now, however, the foot or more of snow is only exacerbating the impact of the unseasonably cold weather.
“Last year at this time, I had 2,800 gallons of syrup,” he said. “So far this year, I’ve only made like 327 gallons.”
Of course, the sugaring industry is coming off two consecutive years of good conditions. Last year was a banner season for Peaceful Valley, which cooked up 3,600 gallons of syrup at its small sugar house on LaGrange Road.
This year has been the exact opposite. The trickling sap also makes it difficult for Savage to capitalize on tourism, since he’s never certain whether he’ll have enough to cook a batch.
“It’s hard because it’s weather-dependent,” he said.
But the woes of the sugaring business this season didn’t deter people from paying a visit to the operation. Droves of maple syrup lovers filled Peaceful Valley’s 68-seat dining room for a family-style pancake breakfast cooked by Barbara Kirk, Savage’s mother.
Dozens of others gathered around the evaporator to watch the process and take in the alluring aroma of Grade-A syrup in the making. The smell brought Ed Blake of Johnstown back to his childhood in Schenectady, where a neighbor would boil down syrup gathered from his trees.
“I love maple syrup,” he said. “I drink it out of a teacup.”
Blake swung by to pick up some syrup for a friend living Arizona. He said she lived in the Capital Region for a year and got a taste for real maple syrup, which is noticeably different from the maple-flavored corn syrup blends that come from factories.
“She always brings me something from where she lives, so I needed to pick her up something she can bring home.”