Cold weather has been tough on maple syrup farmers

It’s a business that involves uncertainty — but the reward can be sweet.

Tapping trees for maple syrup is not for the faint of heart. After farmers attach their spigots, they have only six weeks to drain the sap. If the weather is too cold for decent production, as it was this year, it can be devastating.

Ben Kezar, the owner of Valley View Maple Farm in Springfield, N.H., said maple syrup harvesting is the riskiest of any agricultural business.

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“There’s a saying,” Kezar said this afternoon in a telephone interview. “If you want to have fun, go to Las Vegas. If you want to gamble, make maple syrup.”

To drain sap from trees, farmers need specific conditions. The temperature must be above freezing during the day, and below freezing at night. This allows the sap to warm up during the day and rise, pouring through the taps into buckets. The cold at night helps keep the syrup in place. If it’s too warm, the syrup will rise too high, making the tree blossom, Kezar and other farmers said.

In Massachusetts this year, March, the busiest month for maple farmers, was 6.7 degrees colder than normal, said Bill Simpson, a spokesman for the National Weather Service. In New Hampshire, it was 7.5 degrees colder than usual, he said.

“That’s significant,” said Simpson. “We had many days where the high temperatures were definitely below freezing.”

With the sap too cold to rise, Kezar said, he was able to get only 50 percent of the syrup he ordinarily gathers. When syrup is your main source of income, that’s a problem, he said.

“It’s going to be a rough year,” he said. “We have to tighten up our belts.”

Other farmers voiced the same concerns. Ernie Arciote owns K.E. Farm in Sturbridge with his wife, Karen. He said this year was bad for farming, but he deals with weather problems every season.

“Maple producers struggle with Mother Nature every year,” he said in a telephone interview. “She determines what we’re going to do.”

He said the only way to outsmart nature is to use a vacuum — a piece of equipment that can suck sap from a tree quickly. Smaller farms, like Arciote’s, generally don’t use the equipment, because it’s too pricy, he said.

Robyn Pearl, who owns Pearl & Sons Farm in Loudon, N.H., uses the vacuum system to drain her 11,000 trees. She said the winter weather affected her farm, too, but she was able to get two-thirds of her normal crop.

“What the vacuum does is it pulls more out of the tree. It’s faster than its own dripping,” she said. “But if [the sap] is frozen, no one is getting anything.”

Pearl said that the system is expensive, but she finds it to be a worthy investment.

“If you’re doing it as a backyard hobby, of course, it’s too much,” she said. Pearl said she did not know exactly how much the system cost.

Ron Roberts, the owner of Parker’s Maple Barn in Mason, N.H., said some farmers experiment with tapping times and start work later in the season. But then they run the risk of having the trees blossom before they can tap much sap.

“It’s hard to predict the weather,” said Roberts. “Doing that is running a real risk.”

Roberts said he produced half as much syrup as he usually does this year.

Losing the product is particularly scary for the farmers because it’s easy for customers to get syrup elsewhere, said Kezar.

“Once they go buy Aunt Jemima, they don’t come back,” said Kezar. “It’s sad, but you have to worry about that.”