The sap is flowing, and the syrup is boiling - already.
Workers at the Uihlein Sugar Maple Research & Extension Field Station in Lake Placid made their first batch of syrup on Thursday last week. Director Michael Farrell, who's been with the field station for seven years, said it was "the earliest that we've made syrup.
"Up here, in Lake Placid in the High Peaks, although it's been mild, it's still relatively cold, especially compared to other parts of the state. So in western New York, in the Souther Tier, the Hudson Valley - the sap was flowing all January and February, and a lot of producers got started early. They've already made a lot of syrup down there."
Farrell said temperature and soil moisture are the two biggest factors that contribute to how soon producers can start collecting sap.
"It's mostly based on having enough days above freezing to thaw the trees out," he said. "So even though we've had a lot of warm days throughout the winter, it's been cold enough that the trees are frozen. And it takes more than just one or two days above freezing to thaw them out."
Crews started tapping trees at the 200-acre Uihlein Forest on Jan. 31. Farrell said it took about three weeks to get all the taps in place. Then, workers have to inspect the 60 miles of tubing that brings the sap from the trees to the facilities where it gets boiled into syrup.
Parts of the tubing system will develop leaks that need to be repaired, Farrell said.
"Everything has to be completely snug and tight, otherwise air gets in the tubing and it creates problems and you don't get as much (sap)," he said.
Farrell said the field station will take in about 100,000 gallons of sap in the upcoming season. That will result in about 2,200 gallons of maple syrup.
"It's usually about a 40-to-1 ratio," Farrell said.
So far this year, the sap is sweet, Farrell said. The sugar content in the sap changes year to year, he said, although researchers have no idea what causes that change.
"There are so many variables it could be, and just when you think you figured it out, the next year it will completely throw out that theory," Farrell said. "Some people might say, 'Oh, well it was a great growing season; we had a lot of moisture and sunshine and the trees grew a lot, so yeah, there'll be a lot of sugar.' And then you don't have a good sugar content."
Meanwhile, students at Paul Smith's College finished installing about 1,900 taps on Friday. Hans Michielin, manager of the college's sugar bush and assistant professor of Forestry and Recreation, said the tapping could have wrapped up earlier, but he wanted his students to have a chance to experience the process.
"When we tapped this week, we had some trees that were starting to respond, and some trees that weren't," he said. "We're tapping about two weeks earlier than we normally do.
"As far as what the season is going to bring us, nobody knows until the end of the season because right now, the weather forecast is right for about two hours. It's unpredictable weather."
Michielin said the college recently upgraded its sugaring operation.
"We're looking forward to a good season," he said. "I've been hearing some reports downstate. I've heard they've had some really excellent maple runs."