BEAVERCREEK TOWNSHIP — With optimism, 83 trees have just been tapped in the Sugar Bush at Greene County Parks & Trails’ Narrows Reserve.
GCP&T naturalists and staff drilled maple trees and hung double the buckets than usual Jan. 9, a historically early start. Now they’re hoping for two things: a “good” winter season and more volunteers.
When it comes to sugaring season, a “good” winter is defined precisely: temperatures above freezing during the day plus temperatures below freezing at night plus sunshine. Sunshine is an underrated yet important part of the equation, warming the trees so that the sap will flow.
But that formula didn’t add up last year. Naturalists tapped fewer than the usual 30-40 trees in early February 2018, normal tapping time, and only caught enough sap to make a few gallons of syrup. Forty gallons of sap makes one gallon of syrup.
“We were only up for about a week, and we had to pull everything because the temperatures at night stayed above freezing and we didn’t really get anything,” Naturalist Ashlee Schmitt, now in her 13th sugaring season, said.
If nights stay above freezing for an extended period of time, trees begin to use the sap to push out their leaves, she explained. At that point, it’s time to pull the taps.
“What we’ve started to notice is that we’re missing the run,” she said. “It typically lasts for about 37 to 42 days. And with us tapping as late as we were, we were really missing it.”
Schmitt said that seems to be a new trend in Ohio with the shorter, warmer winters — tapping in January instead of February to catch the run. After four or five years of not-so-good seasons, she’s hopeful.
“The extended 10-day forecast is prime right now,” Schmitt said. “The only thing that would make it better is if we got more sun on those days.”
While sugaring season is certainly changing, Ohio ranked No. 8 for maple syrup production in 2018, Schmitt said. Ohio ranked No. 9 in 2017. Vermont remains at the top, producing the most maple syrup in the country.
GCP&T plans to have about 100 trees tapped in total this season, including buckets that families will soon “rent” and hang through the Rent-A-Bucket program. Part of the reason for tapping more trees this year is due to a need for more syrup for the agency’s annual pancake breakfast, which typically uses syrup stored from the previous season.
Syrup isn’t the only goal, though. The goal is also to educate.
When families pay $25 to rent a sap bucket, they’ll learn how to tap a maple tree, how to collect sap, and can return over the weeks to check on their buckets. They’ll also receive four tickets to the breakfast, which will be held 8:30 to 11:30 a.m. Saturday, March 2 at Russ Nature Reserve, 2380 Kemp Road, Beavercreek.
Naturalists and volunteers will also lead tours of the Sugar Bush on weekdays starting Tuesday, Jan. 22 until Friday, March 8. School classes from Kindergarten to college students, scouts and other groups take part in these tours.
“We’ll take them through the entire process — identifying sugar maples, what sap is, who the Native Americans were who first figured out how to turn sap into syrup, how early settlers evolved the process as well as current modern operations,” Schmitt said.
Groups will also taste warm maple syrup at the end of each tour.
Pre-registration to rent a bucket or join a tour is required before Tuesday, Jan. 22.
But none of it could happen without volunteers, and this year especially with the bigger production, more are needed.
Volunteer training will be held 9 a.m. to noon Monday, Jan. 14 at the Narrows Reserve Nature Center, 2575 Indian Ripple Road, Xenia, for new or current volunteers. Interested residents can also shadow a volunteer to learn the process.
“We need people to help us cook the sap down and tend to the fire. We need people to help us dump buckets and lead groups,” Schmitt said.
A handful of volunteers come back year after year just to partake in sugaring season. Schmitt can tell you why.
“It’s so peaceful in the back of the park. You can hear the creek runnin’, and tending to the fire … I love it,” she said. “Maple sugaring season always to me feels like the start of spring because you have those days above freezing and nights below freezing and once everything stops — the only thing coming is spring.”