Lincoln County harvesters enjoy start of Maine maple season

John Lee, owner of BlackOwl Maple Products, stands next to the boiler in his sugar shack. He’s not boiling the sap this year. (photo Anna M. Drzewiecki)

At the Sweetwoods Farm sugar shack in Newcastle, Justin Wood checked out his gear. After 10 months of dormancy, it took some TLC before the sap started flowing. Which happened earlier this year, according to Wood, before Valentine’s Day.

Wood farms about 2,200 trees on his property, which stretches just off Highway 1 to Dodge Point Preserve near the Damariscotta River. It is an old house guarded by even older trees. He taps a combination of red maples and sugar maples, using a vacuum system to bring sap from the wood to the sugar shack at the front of the property. Inside, he uses a reverse osmosis machine to remove excess liquid before running the sap through a boiler he built.

“Last year was just about right. The sugar was low and the season ended suddenly,” Wood said. This year is off to a better start – a much better start.

With temperatures warming up during the day and continuous freezes at night, the Maine maple season has begun. Woods’ syrup will feature in Maine’s annual average of more than 575,000 gallons of maple syrup, according to Maine Maple Producers Association estimates.

Wood first tried tapping maple trees while studying at Unity College, but he didn’t get into the business until 2018. He adds a few more trees practically every time he goes out, has he says, he can’t help it. He hopes to reach around 4,500 in total.

But for Wood, being in the woods is also being in the woods.

“The day I stop learning in the woods, I’ll be done,” Wood said. He spoke reverently of late nights chopping wood trying to keep up with the demands of the fire, which can heat the boiler up to 600-700 degrees Fahrenheit.

Other farms and people across the county are doing the same: tapping trees, running vacuum lines, splitting wood, cleaning equipment, losing sleep.

Goranson Farm, a certified organic farm in Dresden, began tapping its trees on February 18.

Tops’l Farm, a lodging and dining space in Waldoboro, has announced the fifth season of its reservation-only Sugar Shack meals for the last two weekends of March.

“Maple sugaring season is possibly the fastest and sweetest in New England, and we celebrate our heritage and local flavors each March,” reads the notice on their website.

And of course, there are those who boil their tree sap at home.

According to John Lee, owner and operator of BlackOwl Maple Products in Jefferson, there aren’t as many neighbors in the business as there once were. There were eight or nine others still active when he started in 2013. Now most have stopped racing. Lee thinks it’s a combination of factors, including age. Speaking from inside his sugar shack off Route 32, Lee said he won’t be touching trees or boiling this year either.

“There are so many things to do to prepare,” he said. “It’s 7 days a week whether you boil or not.”

Usually, Lee would start out in the woods in mid-January, cutting down trees, doing line maintenance, and getting ready to go in and tap out with the help of a few family members. He has installed 200 taps now, compared to 350 before.

Lee also sells maple popcorn, desserts and traditional candies.

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“These taste like the old days, the way people my age remember,” Lee said, pointing to the owl-shaped pressed dark maple candy for the sugar shack namesake: the black owl.

“It’s really rewarding to take something that nature gives you and not add anything to it, just process it in different ways and have something, all natural, that you’ve created,” Lee said. “There’s a lot of reward in there.”

The sugar shack will be open when the open flag flies, and at other intervals, if Lee receives a call from someone who is interested. The sales area remains open and will be open for Maine Maple Sunday on the last weekend in March, when sweets across the state open their doors to thousands of visitors.

Lee also boiled sap for a few other farmers, but not this year.

Wood, who works the maple season in addition to his full-time job, is quite busy with sap from his own trees. When it boils, the wood feeds the fire every six minutes. Sometimes the process takes eight hours straight.

He experimented a few years ago with birch syrup – the season of which follows that of maple and requires the same equipment – ​​but did not find a stable market. Additionally, there are few regulations and little information for Maine birch syrup makers.

The market for his maple syrup is much clearer, he says. He doesn’t distribute very far – and there’s a demand for more, if he could do it. Wood spoke gleefully about the season, in all its unpredictability and relentless nature.

His sugar shack is also open, with an honor system for weekend payment. Everyone is welcome to come and learn, Wood said. He is holding a diary with dummy taps to demonstrate the process, and the doors to the sugar shack are open.

Last year on Maine Maple Sunday, about 2,000 visitors stopped by the small wooden structure, which Wood rescued from the road and restored to its current state. The weekend usually comes towards the end of the middle of the short season. But there is no prediction, no matter how hard you try, said Wood, who feverishly studies his trees, the weather and the sap and always accepts the unknowns.

For more information on Maine Maple Sunday, go to visitmaine.com.