On Saturday, March 22, winter returned with snow and cold temperatures, but the sugarhouse at Beaver Hill Plantation on Sibley Road was warm, full of steam and the fragrance of maple as sap boiled in an evaporator that took up most of the room. The day before had only been the fifth run of sap of this season, just in time for the 31st annual Maine Maple Sunday when nearly 100 sugarhouses in the state of Maine are open to the pubic. Many were open on Saturday, too.

According to a recent study conducted by University of Maine Professor of Economics Todd Gabe, Maine's maple industry, the third largest in the United States, generates 567 full- and part-time jobs and $17.3 million in labor income and contributes $27.7 million directly to the Maine economy.

Beaver Hill Plantation owner Steve Bennett gave The Republican Journal a tour of his maple syrup operation.

TRJ: How long have you been making syrup?

Bennett: About 3-4 years. We just put in a new system this year, with lines and a vacuum pump. We also process firewood. That's our skidder over there and we have a firewood processor over here. It will cut, split and load two cords of firewood an hour. We sell it and we also use it.

Bennett walked down the driveway toward a structure at the edge of the orchard.

Bennett: This is the pump house. The vacuum pump puts vacuum out into the orchard in lines to create a difference in psi (pounds per square inch) between the outside of the tree and the inside of the tree.

TRJ: So the vacuum doesn't just help the sap move along the lines, it actually pulls it from the tree?

Bennett: Yeah, I think so. We got 800 gallons yesterday.

TRJ: How many trees do you have tapped?

Bennett: We have about 900 taps. We have another section that we'll be fitting next year. That will have over 2,000 taps. We actually have a lot of trees that have never been tapped. For every tree we have tapped, there are probably two more we didn't tap. It's quite an operation we think.

Inside the pump house, Bennett measured the level of the sap in the tank.

Bennet: There's about a foot and a half here now, so that's between 400 to 500 gallons of sap.

TRJ: When did you install this new system?

Bennett: We built the tank house and put the tank in last year. The lines we put in all this winter.

Back outside he pointed out the blue plastic tubes running to the pump house.

Bennett: This is what you call wet/dry line; wet line being on the bottom, dry line on top. It's the main carrier of vacuum up through the orchard. Coming out of the wet/dry line about every hundred feet are these main lines that go across the slope. They're the smaller ones. You can see the 3/4-inch one on the top and the 1-inch one on the bottom. [The diameter] depends on the number of taps there are on the line. On this there are 3/4-inch [main] lines, about 11 of them. There are probably about 70-80 taps per main line. The main lines are all strung on 12-1/2-gauge wire — really heavy gauge wire. We tighten it with tensioners, and we'll string the tubing under it. We'll put a wire tie every 15 inches to hold that nice and rigid. That's all done by hand. There's 4 miles of this stuff with a wire tie every 15 inches, and then there's about 4 miles of 5/16 line which is just stretched. And then off the ends are what we call drop lines. This one is actually full of sap, you see a bubble right here, but it's not moving because it's so cold.

TRJ: That's a lot of work, how many are in your crew?

Bennett: There's actually four of us, including my son and son-in-law.

TRJ: What kind of tap is this?

Bennett: This is a check-valve tap. There's a little black ball in it. When it's warm enough and the sap is coming out of the tree, the ball moves toward the line and allows the sap to go through, and it'll run. At night, when it gets cold, and it's just about cold enough right now (because it's really not running) the tree wants to take the sap back out of the line

TRJ: So you have to block it.

Bennett: We have to block it. It's not because you want to save the sap, it's because you want to save the tap hole. Think of it like a cut in your arm. If you get blood in the cut what's it do? It heals. If you get sap into that tap hole, it heals. And so what happens is, late in the season, every day it starts to slow down with the regular old taps. With these new check-valve taps, it keeps running until the trees bud, and then the season's over anyhow.

TRJ: How much syrup can you produce a year?

Bennett: Well, we have a whole new system, so we're projecting that we will make somewhere around 500 gallons when it's all said and done. Who knows, I mean so much depends on the weather. But with our system, if we have a bunch of days like we had yesterday, we could do that. 400 gallons, probably.

TRJ: Has this season been weird since it's been so cold?

Bennett: Yeah, we've only had five days so far where the sap even ran. My first run was Feb. 23, and I think the next one was March 11, and we've had just three days since then, counting yesterday. But the long-range Accuweather forecast says that between now and April 20, we'll have freezing nights and thawing days [which is what is needed for sap to run].

TRJ: So the season started a little later and might go a little later for you?

Bennett: Well, I don't know, we did make syrup last year April 19. We keep a log on that. But this season started later. I would be shocked if they made anything in western Maine or northern Maine yet. I don't see how they could have.

Back in the sugarhouse, Jeff Keating was watching a pot of syrup over a flame next to the evaporator.

TRJ: What's happening here?

Keating: Basically, this is right before it's finished. When this temperature gets up to a certain point and all the water is boiled off, that's when it's done. See how it's really starting to bubble up like that? That's the last of the water coming out before it turns to syrup. So what will happen is this will get crazy and actually come right up and could boil over, so you have to watch it.

TRJ: I read that when it gets really frothy, that's when it's finished.

Keating: That's what happening right now. That's how they used to tell it's done. When I was just horsing around by myself, that's when I'd know it's done. But now we measure the temperature.

TRJ (to Bennett): Are you thinking of making other products?

Bennett: We're planning on making maple sugar candy in the future and we're also thinking of making maple cream, which is made by heating up the syrup and blending it basically. It's just pure maple with no dairy or other ingredients. It's consistency is actually more dense than butter and spreads harder than butter. My daughter makes maple butter which does have dairy, and that's really good, too.

TRJ: How did you get into making maple syrup?

Bennett: I leased this orchard for about 10 years to a friend of mine. He built this building, and he put tubing up. He had a pretty good thing going, but he got tired of it. And I have a business in Unity and I kind of wanted to slow down on that, and wanted to do something different. I really like farming and these guys do too. Our families are all involved, our wives are involved, our kids are involved. It's a lot of fun.

TRJ: It looks like it is. Thank you for the tour.