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What Indiana’s Warm February Means For Maple Sap Harvest

When buds appear on trees, that means sugaring season is over. On this week's show, we speak with syrup producers about the quick end to this year’s harvest.

drilling tree for spile

Photo: Annie Corrigan/WFIU

Amran Ahmad, environmental education assistant director at Bradford Woods, drills a hole for a spile.

I visited Amran Ahmad at Bradford Woods on a 67-degree February afternoon. I was in short sleeves, but Amran, who’s originally from Malaysia, was wearing a fleece and a knit cap. “Yes, I love this weather. I just love to see the different seasons, and that’s why I love Indiana,” he says.

Looking around the 2,500-acre property, there are some 30 trees have been tapped. Blue plastic bags are hanging from the spiles. Amran, an environmental education assistant director at Bradford Woods, is looking for another maple tree to tap. It needs to be big enough to handle giving up some of its sap — at least 10 inches in diameter – and the tree must have successfully healed over last year’s tap site.

Jen Smith, a fellow environmental education assistant director, says they have about ninety gallons of sap in storage that they plan to boil into syrup with kids who attend their annual Maple Syrup Camp.

On the really good days this season, they were emptying the blue bags twice a day, but as we almost break a sweat on this mid-February afternoon, Jen says the sugaring season is basically over. “I feel like this year it’s been really unique weather. How often do you walk around in shorts in February? I’ve already seen buds on trees,” she says.

maple tree with spile and bucket

Photo: Annie Corrigan/WFIU

Bradford Woods tapped 30 trees on its 2,500-acre property.

Bradford Woods is a small potatoes when you compare it to a commercial operation like Harris Sugar Bush in Putnam County, Indiana. They have 6,000 taps and 28 miles of tubing that can gather up to 8,000 gallons of sugar water per day.

“The warm weather has caused the holes to dry up and the freeze/thaw cycle has stopped, so we’re done till next year,” says Arthur Harris.

The freeze/thaw cycle begins when temperatures drop below freezing overnight. The tree shrinks and pulls in water from the ground, just like sucking water through a straw. When the sun comes up and the warm air hits the tree, it expands and the sap is pushed throughout the trunk and limbs. That’s when Arthur harvests the sap.

Looking at the weather forecast for the next few days, temperatures should drop back down to freezing. He explains, though, they’ve already passed the point of no return.

When the air temperature has been like it has in the last week, where it’s 60-70, that tree decides it’s time to swell buds and makes leaves. The chemical process in that tree will change the structure in the sap so that the bud now knows that it is to make leaves. It’s a signal, and when it swells and starts that process — even if it goes back to freeze/thaw — that sap is no longer any good to make syrup out of. The fact is when you boil it, it smells so bad you cannot stand the smell.

Arthur, 65, has observed changing weather patterns over a lifetime of sugaring. A few years ago, he had a great season with a full crop. Last year, his production was down by half. This year, likely it will be down by one-third. That mirrors what other Indiana maple syrup operations are experiencing. According to a Indiana Department of Natural Resources survey, the state’s sugarers made a whopping 22,405 gallons of syrup in 2013, but then production dropped to 14,769 in 2014. The following year, it dropped even further to 11,829. In 2016, statewide production rebounded slightly to just over 12,054 gallons of syrup.

Arthur says with all the uncertainty in sugaring, they’ve diversified their farm. They now run a hardwood sawmill. They also design and sell the vacuum systems they hook up to maple trees.

“We’re prepared for these seasons. You have to be. You can’t put all your eggs in one basket. It’s too expensive to operate,” he says. “And the expense is the same whether you make a little or a lot.”

looking in the bucket for sap

Photo: Annie Corrigan/WFIU

Jen Smith watches as the first drips of sap fall into the bucket.

Back with Amran and Jen at Bradford Woods, we’re tapping a tree anyway. Amran picks the side that gets the most sunlight, and he measures five inches away from last year’s tap site. His drill bit is wrapped in pink tape to show how deep to drill into the tree. He inserts a 7/16-inch spile into the hole.

“Now we’ve got the aluminum bucket and we have the cover as well, so in case it rains, it won’t dilute our sap,” says Jen. Then, just as she hangs it on the spile, the first drop of sap rings the bucket like a bell.

“You talk about the magic of maple syrup, it’s that first ‘dink’ that usually gets me every time,” she says.

The forecast predicted another warm night, so despite our instant gratification, Jen wasn’t expecting much more than a half inch of sap in the bucket by the morning.

Stories On This Episode

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Student loans in the U.S. have run grads into $1 trillion of debt. For young people trying to start their own farm, student debt can put their dreams on hold.

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It takes a minimum of 12 hours of daylight per day for hens to lay eggs. As the days continue to get longer, here's what to know about your flock's egg output.

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We’re going to do something very Hoosier with turnips today, pairing them with some local maple syrup from Burton’s Maplewood Farm.

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Trump on his own can’t repeal the rule. The executive order directs the new EPA administrator to revise it, which could take years.

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Feed The Truth enlists food activists, scholars and scientists to fight misguiding labels, and biased or industry-funded science.

Philadelphia Soda Sales Drop To Half After Soda Tax

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The tax, implemented on Jan. 1, is aimed at curbing soda consumption while generating revenue for city infrastructure and education projects.

Annie Corrigan

Annie Corrigan is a producer and announcer for WFIU. In addition to serving as the local voice for NPR's Morning Edition, she produces WFIU's weekly sustainable food program Earth Eats. She earned degrees in oboe performance from Indiana University and Bowling Green State University.

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