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March 13, 2011

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Snow adds sweet touch to syrup

The mountains of snow that have buried the Northeastern United States this season will have a sweet - and only slightly bitter - taste for the region's maple syrup producers.

Sweet because an abundance of snow helps with the production of the sap that is boiled down to produce syrup. But bitter because too much snow is as much a chore for maple syrup producers to deal with as it is for everybody else.

Also, most people do not make their livings, or even their hobbies, out of clambering over snow drifts in the woods tapping trees and repairing plastic tubing to gather sap from maple trees.

Still, on the whole "snow is considered a good thing," says Steve Childs, New York state maple specialist with Cornell University.

It moderates the temperature in the woods, keeping it cool if the air warms up, which is good for maple. The snow layers also insulate the ground, which keeps it from freezing too deeply so trees can draw up moisture during sap flow, which can start in February, or earlier if there is an early thaw.

Of course, winter is not over quite yet. With another big storm, the Silloway farm in Randolph Center, Vermont, could be approaching that, with more than 60cm of snow already in the woods at the beginning of February.

"The deep snow will keep the ground thawed out so sap will start when the air temperature is ready," said David Silloway, 65, a syrup producer. "The deep snow will keep the sap cool, air cool, so that it will make lighter syrup."

Lighter syrup is typically produced early in the season when the weather is colder. As it warms up, the syrup tends to get darker with a more robust flavor as microorganisms feed on the sugar as it comes out of the tree.

Last year, spring came on fast in New England, warming up too much and cutting the season short for some, particularly those who collect sap in buckets hanging from trees. That has prompted more producers to install vacuum lines, which actually pull the sap from the tree.

"Particularly after last year the evidence was really there that it makes a huge difference," said Pitcoff. "You get more sap, significantly more sap."

The snow will help, Childs said. But syrup producers will not know what kind of season they are having until it is over.

"It could turn 21 degrees Celsius, and all the snow could leave in three days, and we'd be right back where we started from," Childs said.


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