A cloud of vapor rose over a stainless steel vat of bubbling maple sap last week as Robert Parsons of Gorham fed wood into the flames to generate heat necessary to boil down sap into syrup.
Parsons and other producers across the state will host thousands of people flocking to sugar houses in a ritual called Maine Maple Sunday, which this year falls on Easter, March 27.
“We estimate around 50,000 people will participate in Maine Maple Sunday,” Samantha Howard, a Maine Department of Agriculture coordinator, said Tuesday. “Even though the event does coincide with Easter, the producers are still expecting great crowds.”
She said many producers “are opening their doors for both Saturday and Sunday this year and on other weekends this month, because participating sugarhouses are open most of the day, many families will combine traditional Easter celebrations with trips to their local sugarhouses.”
Maine Maple Sunday is a tradition for tasting and buying maple syrup and products made from sap collected from the woods. But this year, the weather has been challenging for producers, who have been impacted by the milder winter temperatures, slowing sap. But, a good run this week could bolster sap production upward to meet the average of recent years.
“It’s the strangest winter I’ve seen in years,” Russell Parsons, of Parsons’ Maple Products, said this week.
Maine Maple Sunday is traditionally always the fourth Sunday in March. Syrup producers have busily tapped maple trees to capture nature’s sap that flows into either pails hanging on trees or through plastic tubing to collection containers. In sugar houses, approximately 40 gallons of sap are boiled down in evaporators to produce one gallon of syrup.
Lyle Merrifield of Gorham, president of Maine Maple Producers Association, believes this year will likely produce an average crop. Merrifield collected “quite a bit” of sap on Monday.
“The snow and cold helped out,” Merrifield said.
This season’s milder temperatures have contrasted with below-normal cold that slowed the output of sap in 2015. Mark Cooper, of Coopers Maple Products in Windham, said Tuesday this hasn’t been a great season but expected his sap collection to be on par with recent years.
At his farm on Tuesday, Merrifield was hoping for sunshine and no wind as conditions for a productive sap run. Parsons, who has participated 22 years in Maine Maple Sunday, said ideal tempertures for sap runs would be in the mid-20s at night coupled with daytime temperatures in the low- to mid 40-degree range.
At Jo’s Sugarhouse in Gorham, Jocelia Hartwell believes her sap collection will run average or below average and the syrup looks to be on the darker side. She attributed the syrup color to the milder temperatures.
“It got so warm,” Hartwell said.
For many families, Sunday is an opportunity to visit local farms, learn first hand how syrup is produced, and dine on pancakes topped with syrup. Syrup producers in Gorham serving up a pancake breakfast include Parsons’, 322 Buck St.; Merrifield, 195 North Gorham Road; and Jo’s Sugarhouse, near the Gorham-Standish line at 443 Sebago Lake Road.
Parsons’ will serve a pancake breakfast with sausage, bacon and coffee from 8 a.m.-noon on Sunday. At Merrifield Farm, a pancake breakfast will be served from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. on both Saturday and Sunday, March 26 and March 27. Jo’s Sugarhouse will have blueberry pancakes and sausage from 9 a.m.-4 p.m,. on Sunday.
In Windham, Cooper’s Maple Products, 81 Chute Road, will host a pancake breakfast with choice of bacon or sausage and beverages from 9 a.m.- 2 p.m. on Sunday. The farm and sugarhouse will be open from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. on Saturday and from 9 a.m.-5, Sunday.
Features at Merrifield Farm include ox cart rides and a blacksmith will demonstrate hand-crafting metal objects like hooks. Jo’s Sugarhouse will have goats on display and Cooper’s will have cows with calves, peacocks, pheasants, and a barn with 28 miniature horses to see.
“It’s popular with visitors,” Cooper said.
As far as coinciding with Easter, Merrifield expects the crowd would likely show up a little later in the day. The association had considered moving Maine Maple Sunday to another date this year to avoid a conflict with Easter, but decided to stick with tradition. Merrifield said the fourth Sunday serves best because of the sap collection season. He said this is only the third time in 33 years that the day has been on Easter, and the fourth Sunday misses Easter more often than other possible Sunday dates.
Hartwell, who has participated in Maine Maple Sunday for a decade, decided to stick with the traditional fourth Sunday date, but expected coinciding with Easter will have an impact.
“I’m afraid it’s going to,” Hartwell said.