Maple Syrup Delayed But On The Way

March 17, 2014

Jen Bradley

The Country Today

It’s no secret the long winter has everyone suffering from cabin fever, and this year, even the sugar maple trees are feeling it. The renowned Wisconsin maple syrup crop has been delayed but is on the way.

David Meuer of Chilton in Calumet County said he saw the warm temperatures coming last week and got prepared.

“They’re not running real good yet,” said Meuer, who saw the first sap run on Monday, March 10.

Meuer said the 2014 maple syrup season is definitely late compared to previous years. In 2013, the trees were tapped on Feb. 23 and ran for two months. In other years, they ran for as short as three weeks. Once the soil begins to warm and trees start to green, it’s over.

Meuer has nearly 130 sugar maples, which produce an average of 100 gallons of syrup per year, when it’s a good season. If everything was on a “normal” schedule, Meuer said, the trees at Meuer Farm would have been tapped at least a week and a half ago. As of March 11, Meuer tapped his last maple tree.

Seeing sap is another story. Meuer said the warm-up pattern this spring will determine the length of the maple syrup season.

“If we have a real fast warm-up, that’s not good either, as it melts everything,” he said. “If it’s a fast warm-up, it’s going to be a short season.”

In 2012, it was 80 degrees on March 15, Meuer said, and the syrup season finished in a matter of weeks.

Meuer grows and sells pre-picked or pick-your-own strawberries on his farm, an attraction that draws nearly 3,000 people to Chilton during the summer months. Meuer said he takes soil temperature readings for his patches, and once the soil reaches 40 degrees for three days in a row, the berry bushes are ready to be uncovered from their winter straw.

How does this relate to maple syrup? It’s all in the timing.

“Typically when we finish maple syrup, we are uncovering strawberries no longer than a week later,” he said.

If strawberry picking starts at an average date of June 10, a month earlier they are blossoming and a month earlier than that, they are uncovered, about April 10.

“This shows you how backed up we are with maple syrup,” Meuer said. “If April 10 is the end of the season, we’re looking at a one-month season.”

Of course, this all depends on the weather. Ideally, Meuer wants to see a slow warm-up, a nice day followed by a colder day, and so forth.

“What we need is freezing, thawing, freezing, thawing,” he said. “If it warms up to 50 or 60 degrees and only drops to 40 at night, and that’s how it warms up, it will not be a good season.”

Meuer keeps watch for a warm-weather outlook and the sap to flow. He said the reason he taps trees early on his property is because the sugar content of the maple sap is very high now. It takes fewer gallons of sap to produce a gallon of syrup. The average is 40 gallons of sap to 1 gallon of syrup, boiling off 39 gallons of water to make that single gallon of sweet, maple goodness. At that level, the sugar content of the sap is approximately 3 to 5 percent.

But if the tree is tapped early, as Meuer does, he is able to see 5, 6 or 7 percent sugar contents, and around 27 gallons of sap to that single gallon of syrup. As the tree runs, it becomes more diluted. Toward the end of the season, he will boil nearly 55 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup.

Meuer boils the syrup in a batch process, not by continuous slow boiling. He brings 60 gallons of sap from start to finish in a boiling pan, then transfers it to a finishing unit without adding any other sap to the batch, as the continuous process requires. One batch can take up to four hours to process from start to finish. It is bottled while still hot and available for purchase directly from the farm as long as supply is available.

Meuer produces all three grades of maple syrup. The first is a light syrup, Grade A Fancy USDA Light. It only is made at the beginning of the season, and the only way to produce this light syrup is to use a batch evaporator, Meuer said. The second syrup of the year is an Amber Grade A and the last syrup, a Grade B, boasts the darkest color and strongest maple flavor.

The public is always welcome at Meuer Farm and is invited to watch the syrup boiling process in action. Meuer recommends calling first to make sure syrup is being boiled on any given day and says samples are a highlight for visitors.

Meuer is a strong advocate for agritourism and with his wife, Leslie, has made their farm a welcoming experience for anyone who wants to learn and see various areas of agriculture up close and personal.

“I really enjoy it,” Meuer said. “And I want to get going! Others are looking forward to the syrup too.”

Beginning in May, Meuer is launching his first of the “Farm Flavors Dinner Series.” Once a month, through September, a chef from an area restaurant will prepare a three-to-five-course meal at the farm.

Meuer said while the sap is off to a slow start in his area of the state, his friends farther north are still waiting to just tap trees, something they would normally be starting now.

“I’ve talked to people and it will be a long time until the snow is down far enough,” he said. “And any day it does not get above freezing, the sap is not going to run.”

If all goes well this week, Meuer hopes the season will progress positively, and this cold winter will just be another story to share around the kitchen table.

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