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Syrup makers wait for the sap, frozen by cold, to kick back on


WESTVILLE, Ind. — Maple trees have not relinquished much sap because of extended arctic-like cold in late February and early March.

Maple syrup makers are trying not to worry, though, with forecasts in the coming days calling for temperatures ideal for priming nature’s sap pumps. “We should start seeing some movement,” said Rick Matthys, owner of Valmeer Farms outside Westville in northwestern Indiana.

Those who make syrup are nowhere close to the volumes they usually churn out during the season, which can run into April depending on temperatures. John Loucks usually makes about 500 gallons of syrup from the 30 acres he taps between New Paris and Wakarusa in northern Indiana.

So far, he said his 3,000 taps have yielded enough sap to produce just eight gallons of syrup. He’s not panicking, though; he said most syrup was made in March while he was growing up and helping his father collect and boil down sap from the trees.

It’s only been in recent years that February started yielding a lot of sap because of milder late-winter temperatures. “We always got our biggest runs about the middle of March. So, this is just normal for us,” Loucks said.

Matthys said he also made about eight gallons during two weekends of 40-degree high temperatures after the late January to early February polar vortex lifted. He’s collected hardly a drop of sap, though, from the 340 taps on his 10 acres since the mercury dropped and stayed down.

If the weather starts cooperating, though, he could end up with his usual 100-110 gallons of syrup before the sap quits running altogether for the year. “The long-range forecast looks pretty good for the next two weeks. We’ll make up for it, hopefully, at the end,” he said.

Normally, Rich Pardue of Union Mills, Ind., said he would have two gallons of syrup from the sap of his five maple trees by now. He mustered just enough sap for one gallon.

Tom Cook, who has taps in his 20-acre woods near Niles, Mich., reported similar results from the early-season cold. Temperatures above freezing during the day and below freezing at night creates a pumping effect that squeezes out the sap from inside the trees.

What syrup makers are not hoping for is a sudden drastic warm-up. That would also turn off nature’s sap pump and bring an early end to the season, if such conditions lasted for an extended period.

“If we can get a nice 40 degrees through the whole month of March, then we should have a normal year,” Matthys explained.

Once temperatures climb above freezing, Loucks said it can take a day or two, and even longer, for the sap to really start flowing again. Just how long depends on the amount of sunlight, which helps melt frozen tap lines and frost in the ground. The roots of the trees have to thaw out to attain full sap flow, he said.

Loucks sells much of his syrup from his doorstep, and for the pancake and sausage breakfast during the annual Maple Syrup Festival at Wakarusa in April. The rest is sold in some of the local stores.

Much of the syrup produced by Matthys is sold retail at places like Garwood Orchards west of La Porte and County Line Orchard near Hobart. His syrup is also offered in a store at his farm and the Indiana Dunes National Park Visitor Center near Chesterton.

According to the USDA, Michigan was the seventh-leading producer of maple syrup in the nation from 2016-18. Indiana and Connecticut were tied for 10th. Vermont was the top-producing state, churning out nearly half of all the maple syrup in the nation.

New York and Maine were second and third in production.