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Early warmth puts Minnesota's maple syrup season in question: tap now or wait for "spring"?

Feb 05, 2024 07:22AM ● By Content Editor
Photo: MN DNR

By Laura Durenberger-Grunow - Boreal Community Media - February 2, 2024

The unseasonably warm weather blanketing Minnesota has many maple syrup lovers wondering: tap now or wait for "true" spring? While sap typically flows in late winter and early spring, the lack of snow and balmy temperatures have producers caught in a sticky dilemma.

"It's a season unlike any other I've experienced," Sven Hoaglund, owner of Hoaglund Homestead and maple syrup producer in Cook County told Boreal Community Media. "With no snow insulating the ground, I'm worried the frost is deeper than usual, delaying the main flow. But if this warmth keeps up, I might have to tap early, even if it means battling brush instead of snow."

Related: U of M Extension to host a series on maple syruping in Cook County, other areas in MN

Hoaglund, like many producers, faces a trade-off.  Sap starts producing when temperatures in the day climb above freezing, or +32 degrees Fahrenheit, and below freezing at night - something much of the state of Minnesota has been experiencing lately. Tapping early in the season can capture sap with a "first run" higher sugar content, but risks include "Plugging of the xylem vessels by microbial growth and the way the tree responds to the taphole wound by walling off the injured tissues (taphole “drying”, or, cessation of sap flows, even if weather conditions are appropriate for good sap runs), according to the North American Maple Syrup Producers Association. This early defense mechanism, which begins immediately after a taphole is drilled in a tree, could cause producers to miss later, more abundant flows. "It's a gamble," Hoaglund admits. 

Data from the North American Maple Syrup Producers Association (Sarah Waddle, U of M Extension Coordinator for Cook County, calls this organization the "go-to" source for maple syrup producers), shows the average tapping date in Minnesota is February 20th, but historical records reveal significant variations based on temperature and microclimates. 

Producers using vacuum systems or tubing systems with tapholes closed to the air (and which maintain a closed sanitary environment), produce better results and have some breathing room in terms of how long they can tap. However, those using traditional buckets and taps need to tread carefully, as exposed tapholes dry out faster. 

The impact of this early season remains to be seen. Some experts predict a slightly smaller overall harvest due to potential drying or sealing, while others remain cautiously optimistic. 

The North American Maple Syrup Producers Association states that "A common mistake that new producers with only a few trees make is to tap too early when they see or hear of others who are using tubing with a vacuum system tap." It is advised that home-tappers wait until temperature and other conditions are more consistent. 

As for Hoaglund, he shared he's nervous about the potential of an early season. "I'd really prefer to not start tapping now, but if this keeps up I’ll definitely be out there tapping drill in hand. There’s something pretty magical about snowshoeing around through the woods and tapping on those first warm days of March, but right now I’d just be hoofing it in my boots and getting tangled up in all of the brush that’s usually under a few feet of snow."

Related: Winter's Warm Start: What Does It Mean for Spring Gardens and Pollinators?

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