Fewer subfreezing nights impacting maple syrup production

Highland County Maple Festival kicks off March 9

By Chris Michaels - Meteorologist

While 75 percent of the country's maple syrup is produced in New York and New England, Highland County is the epicenter of maple production in the Commonwealth. 

Dorothy Stephenson, from the Highland County Chamber of Commerce, says "A lot of people refer to it as the lifeblood of Highland County."

Sean Sublette, a meteorologist with Climate Central, tells 10 News, “It is very difficult this far south to produce maple syrup anyway.” Because of Highland County's elevation and more frequent cold weather, the sap can run smoothly.

Since 1950, Climate Central has reported that the tapping season in the Northeast starts eight days earlier and ends 11 days earlier than it did in 1950.

Doug Puffenbarger is a maple syrup producer in Blue Grass, and has seen this firsthand. 

“When I was younger growing up, your season would last at least into April and very seldom does it do that now.”

Puffenbarger, like many others, drills into maple trees to collect sugar water that's then fed into a series of tanks before being put through a reverse osmosis machine. That removes nearly 80% of the water. What remains is then boiled down. 

Because of warmer winter nights, Puffenbarger says, “We’ve made as much as 900 to 1,000 gallons. In the past three years, it’s been anywhere from 2 to 300.”

While there's no known temperature data for Highland County, nearby Hot Springs saw 25 nights above freezing this winter. That's the 11th-most on record since the late 1800s.

As a result of warming winters,  Sublette tells 10 News, “The time for the maples is earlier and they tend to not last as long.”

“As we have fewer nights that are below freezing, it is going to be more difficult for the sap to run.”

Despite those challenges, folks in Highland County are eagerly anticipating the 61st annual Maple Festival. Dorothy Stephenson says that, from talking with producers in the county, it looks like there have at least been enough freezes and thaws for good production this year.

It's that production that Puffenbarger would like to show off this year, in the absence of his family's coveted maple doughnuts. 

“People can come in and tour, and hopefully the trees will be running and get to see some of the operation work. Usually, the past couple years when March comes, it’s been over-with because of the warm weather in February.”

The festival runs from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on March 9 and 16, and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on March 10 and 17.

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