GORHAM–Recent spring-like temperatures haven’t been sweet news at Parsons Maple Products in Gorham.
With Maine Maple Sunday rapidly approaching, brothers Russell and Bob Parsons are hoping for more seasonal March weather to speed up the flow of Maple tree sap they’ll boil down into sweet syrup.
“It has been a little too hot and we haven’t had very good freezes at night,” Bob Parsons said, as their sap collection and processing equipment sat idle Tuesday.
Russell Parsons said ideal temperatures for the sap to run are in the low 20s at night with highs in the low to mid 40s daytime. This weekend’s unseasonably warm temperatures did not help the sap flow.
“Sunday put a damper on it,” he said.
The brothers are readying their annual syrup production for their Maine Maple Sunday open house March 28, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., in the sugarhouse at their dairy farm at 322 Buck St. Parsons will give away free samples of syrup on ice cream to visitors that day. New this year at Parsons will be a pancake breakfast from 9 a.m.-1 p.m.
The brothers were hoping this week the weather would cooperate to get the sap running.
“We’ve made 15 gallons of syrup so far,” Russell Parsons said. But, he hoped to collect 800 gallons of sap Wednesday, enough for another 20 gallons of syrup. “By no means is it late yet,” he said.
“We’re hoping today it will start running pretty good,” Jo-Ann Merrifield of Gorham, president of Southern Maine Sugarmakers Association, said Wednesday about the sap.
But, on Tuesday the evaporator in the sugarhouse and collection equipment sat idle in the yard. Russell and his son Adam Parson, a 2007 graduate of Gorham High School, lifted a few covers over pails to check sap levels in pails on trees handy to the sugarhouse.
Five-gallon pails after three or four days were only partially filled. The pails under normal conditions would be filled in 24 hours. Only a sporadic drip of sap fell into one of the pails.
“I’m just going to let it run today,” Russell Parsons said.
The warm weather, above 50 degrees, shuts down the sap flow, Russell Parson said. “If it stays warm and we don’t get the freeze at night, it’ll be a bad year,” he said.
But the Parsons are still optimistic that everything will come together by Maine Maple Sunday, the industry’s biggest day of the year.
Maple Sunday has become a ritual in Maine with thousands of families pouring out statewide to sample syrup and soak up the rural atmosphere.
“We believe it’s a sign of spring,” Merrifield said. “People getting out. A lot to see and do and not cost anything.”
In 2009, the Parsons, who have been producing and selling maple syrup for 20 years, made 125 gallons of syrup and estimated as many as 1,000 people visited their operation on Maine Maple Sunday.
The sweet syrup will top pancakes served in a sugarhouse room built with hemlock timber grown on the farm. Home-built picnic tables can seat up to 40 people at a time and is handicapped accessible. A wood furnace provides heat while enhancing the country ambiance.
Customers in past years have asked repeatedly whether Parsons has a pancake breakfast on Maine Maple Sunday.
“I’ve turned away hundreds on the phone,” Bob Parsons said. Last year “I got so many calls,” he said.
Syrup is available year-round at Parsons Maple Products. They sell syrup by the half pint, pint, quart, half gallon and gallon. But they haven’t priced their products yet this year.
Merrifield said the average statewide price per gallon of maple syrup now is about $55, the norm for recent years in Maine.
Russell Parsons said they have 1,200 taps on trees but he didn’t have an estimate on the number of trees, which have between one and five taps.
The sap runs into hanging covered pails that have spouts placed in drilled holes. Sap from some trees flows through plastic blue tubes into 15-gallon drums located in the woods.
For transportation to the sugarhouse at Parsons Farm, sap is poured by hand from collection pails into a receptacle on the rear of a trailer before being pumped into a 300-gallon tank. The trailer is pulled by a special vehicle on tracks, which crawls tree-to-tree through the woods. For the more easily accessible trees, a pickup truck with a tank mounted in the bed collects the sap.
The lack of snow this year will ease the rigorous collection chore. “I like the bare ground,” said Russell Parsons, who described sap collection as back-aching work.
Adam Parsons will help collect the sap in the woods. He’s also pleased there’s no snow on the ground. “Last year and in past years, it was miserable,” he said. “Going over snow banks is not fun.”
Once delivered to the sugar shack, the sap is boiled in a stainless-steel evaporator fueled by a wood fire. Russell Parsons said 40 gallons of sap is required to produce a gallon of maple syrup. The evaporator can produce 2.5 gallons of syrup in an hour.
The maple business is a family affair for the Parsons. Beth Parsons, wife of Bob Parsons, will cook the pancakes on a griddle and her husband will lend a hand in the kitchen area.
Becky (Parsons) Phinney, a sister, will sell the maple syrup and serve up ice cream samples topped with syrup. Russell Parson’s other children, Zach Parsons, 23; Isaac Parsons, 14; and Gabrielle Parsons, 17, will all be involved. They mark the sixth generation on the farm.
Parsons Farm offers sugarbush and general tours, and demonstrations of the syrup-making process. A working farm, the dairy cows attract many visitors to the Parsons Farm.
Russell Parsons said Maine Maple Sunday is a social event for some visitors who will travel farm-to-farm visiting several sugar operations on the special day.
“The fourth Sunday in March is the day,” he said.