Varying temperatures mean different maple syrup seasons for northern, southern Wisconsin producers

Sap collection in southern Wisconsin is well underway. One producer says it may wrap up before trees to the north are even tapped.

A man stands in the snow as he uses a tool to drill into a tree.
Jeremy Solin taps a maple tree in his family’s heritage sugarbush March 2020 north of Antigo, Wis. Photo courtesy of Jeremy Solin

Scott Walter of Driftless Gold recently tapped his organic maple trees in Richland County. And with temperatures reaching the low 40s this week, the sap is flowing.

But Walter said some smaller syrup producers tapped their trees as early as mid-February because of unseasonably warm temperatures. That’s several weeks before the typical start to the season.

“There were certainly people who were making syrup in their backyards as early as Feb. 15 or so,” he said. “But for the larger producers with not dozens but potentially many thousands of trees to tap, it’s sometimes difficult to adapt that quickly.”

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The top maple syrup producing states in the country — Vermont, New York and Maine — have all seen much earlier starts to the syrup season this year.

In Wisconsin, which is fourth-largest producer of maple syrup, the early warm-up means a bigger difference between the start of the season for producers in the south versus in the north.

Dane County resident Dominic Ledesma is one hobbyist who jumped on the early warm weather. Ledesma, who is chief diversity officer for the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Division of Extension, started tapping trees at his home and his family’s cabin in Jackson County last year after learning about the craft from his colleagues. He said sap was flowing in when he first tapped his trees in February, but collection slowed down in Jackson County as the weather turned cold again.

“The season really didn’t take off,” he said. “In talking with other colleagues in Extension, I certainly noticed some very significant differences between the southern part of the state and Jackson County.”

Ledesma said he’s collected about 25 gallons from his trees in Jackson County. But he’s gotten 40 gallons from two trees in Dane County and is ready to start boiling down the sap this weekend.

Jeremy Solin, co-owner of Tapped Maple Syrup in Langlade County, said he’s expecting it will be at least another week before producers in his area start tapping trees. Solin said there’s always been a gradient from south to north, but he feels like the start times have been further apart.

“Last year was the first time I remember where parts of southern Wisconsin were completely done before we’d even really started our season in northern Wisconsin,” Solin said. “It almost seems like that’s going to be the case again this year, which will be kind of weird.”

Solin said the variability in temperatures this winter has made it hard for producers to gauge what will happen this season. He said producers that use plastic tubing to collect sap have a little more flexibility when they tap. But for sugar bushes like his that still collect the sap by hand using buckets, Solin said producers have to be more careful about not tapping too early.

And Solin said the possibility of missing the season keeps him up at night.

“Throughout this whole winter there’s been a lot of warm weather. So it’s just created a kind of uneasiness and uncertainty about when the sap will run,” he said.

Walter agrees that stakes are high for syrup producers to get things just right, which includes being ready to go earlier than expected.

“Given that syrup producers make their living throughout the year based on what happens over a three- or four-week period in the spring, you’re always wanting to catch every last drop of sap,” he said. “If you get your trees tapped early, and you’re ready for that early sap flow, you can take advantage of it.”

Last year was a good year for maple syrup, with producers around the state collecting more from their trees and some reporting higher quality syrup because of periods of colder weather mid-season. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service reported Wisconsin producers had almost 18 percent more yield per tap in 2022 than the previous year. Wisconsin produced 440,000 gallons of maple syrup for 2022, nearly 21 percent more than in 2021.

Walter said conditions are lining up for another good season this year. Even with a snow storm expected to hit most of the state later this week, Walter said the sap should keep flowing once the temperatures warm up again.

“The old timers talk about these late spring snow storms as ‘sugar snows,’” he said. “You’ll get good sap flow after an event like this, but it’s got to warm up.”

To the north, Solin said he’s also seeing signs of a good year, including healthy trees and sufficient rainfall. But he said it’ll all come down to whether they get the right temperature conditions this month to get the sap flowing.