A good season for local maple sugar houses

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BENNINGTON -- Maple syrup producers in the Southshire and neighboring New York reported a positive year in the maple sugaring business, easily besting 2010 -- a poor year for most.

"The season started out slow, but then it ended really good," said Jason Lillie of Bennington, who tapped about 200 trees this year. Lillie said that he and another friend, who taps about an equivalent amount, had free flowing sap particularly later on in the season. "This was one of the best seasons," he said, since he started tapping in 1986.

"There are never two years in a row that are the same," said Jim Williamson of North Bennington, who has been tapping maples for more than six decades. Williamson said that he had produced about an average quantity of syrup for the year, but remarked that this year's syrup was lighter in color and a higher grade than usual.

"It was sweeter this year," he said, averaging about three percent sugar straight out of the tap. Williamson said that his sugaring season was short but still plentiful, and that he might have three to four more days of running sap ahead of him this week.

That unpredictability in quality and quantity is taken in stride by maple producers, who acknowledge their yields are largely dependent on springtime meteorological conditions.

"We'll produce what God and Mother Nature allow us to get," said Staffan Rascher, of Rascher's Sugar House in Shushan, N.Y. Rascher said that his season was wrapped up a week ago, but he reported excellent yields nonetheless.

"We produced triple over what we did last year," he said. Rascher's maple syrup is unique among local production in that it is certified organic. Certification requires jumping some hurdles, according to Rascher, but "a lot of people appreciate it."

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As part of that certification process, he said that they would not tap along roads, or fields where pesticides or fertilizers might have been used. Rascher also said that he was careful to conserve the resource and not overtap, or tap maples too young.

Despite the now waning production season, many maple producers will continue to invite guests to their sugarhouses -- and syrup stands. Williamson said that, tapping approximately 2,500 trees this year, he would have a stock of syrup on hand year-round.

Rascher said that his supply was good for the entire year also, sold from his stand on Perry Hill Road and at the Salem, N.Y., farmer's market during the summer. He also ships.

For his part, Lillie said that he typically held onto a stock of syrup until fall, and then sold it through September and October. "We're lucky to have some (left) by Christmas," he said.

Whether a big operation or small, the costs of maple production have increased markedly in recent years. "The (production) costs have dramatically increased, but the cost of syrup hasn't reflected that," said Lillie. He said that the price of oil had increased nearly fourfold over the past 15 years, while a gallon of syrup had appreciated only 25 percent over that same time frame. "It takes four gallons of oil to produce one gallon of syrup," he said.

Williamson said that he used to ship a lot more but that the cost of freight had put a damper on those sales. Meanwhile, anyone interested in starting to tap and boil sap will need to purchase equipment which has gotten more expensive, from the evaporator right down to the simple wooden bucket. Even the cost of retail jugs, Williamson said, "has gone up tremendously."

Contact Zeke Wright at ewright@benningtonbanner.com.


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