Ice storm may impact Vt. maple syrup crop

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December 30, 2013, 6:19 pm
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(NECN: Jack Thurston, Westford, Vt.) - After last weekend's ice storm, maple syrup producers in Vermont are assessing damage to their operations. Several have reported significant damage to trees and the tubing that carries sap from the woods to the sugarhouse to be boiled into syrup, according to the Vt. Maple Sugar Makers' Association.

"We dodged a bullet," said Bob White, a sugar maker in Westford, Vt. "We were right on the edge of catastrophic."

White showed New England Cable News how the heavy ice caused some trees to bow or snap, damaging the tubing network underneath them. The good news, White said, is that some of that ice melted Sunday, alleviating stress on the trees.

White said the sap-producing maples in his sugarbush, at least, weren't badly broken; it was mostly other kinds of trees including beeches and birches. White added that damaged sections of pipeline can be repaired.

"If we've got oh, a hundred of these or a few hundred of these, it's something you can live with and we'll produce syrup this year," White said of damaged pipe sections. "If we've got a thousand of these or several thousand of these, you can't recover fast enough."

Matt Gordon of the Vt. Maple Sugar Makers Association said the picture may be bleaker for other producers. Gordon told NECN that some sugarers, especially in towns like Richford and Enosburgh, near the Canadian border, have told him they are worrying about significant damage. Producers have been challenged even assessing the full extent of the damage, due to heavy snow and ice in the woods, Gordon said.

"It's kind of dangerous to be out in the woods," he noted.

Gordon said it is possible some producers, in communities where the ice hit the hardest, could be faced with deep losses in the spring and lower-than-expected output if they can boil.

"They'll get out, repair the lines, and make maple syrup, if not this year then next year," Gordon said. "It really is a reminder that it's not particularly easy to make maple syrup and the people who do it are really dedicated; it's in their blood."

Gordon said it's way too early to predict how the 2014 season will turn out because of this. But in Vermont, where the trees are the backbone of a signature industry worth tens of millions of dollars, the health of the woods is critical.

"It's definitely a huge investment," Gordon said of maple operations. "Depending on the size of the operation, it could be many miles of line, of tubing, that have to be assessed before they begin to produce in the spring."

If you have to find a silver lining in the ice storm, Gordon and White said, it's that at the least it didn't hit in February or March; closer to when the sap starts flowing. That means many producers should have time to clear impacted lines and give damaged trees a chance to heal before the spring, the two added.

Bob White said he knows he'll have a busy few months cleaning up the mess from this icy wallop. He said he hopes to avoid more damage from other winter storms that are sure to come.

"If you're not ready to roll with the punches, agriculture is not the place to be," White chuckled.

Tags: New England, vermont, maple syrup, Westford, Jack Thurston, Bob White, Matt Gordon, sugar maker, Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association
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