Waldo County sugarhouses report that Friday the 13th was a lucky day, with sun and 35 degrees that produced what was for many their first official sap run. So, although it may be running only sporadically, Maine’s 2015 sugaring season is here!

And just in time, too, because the fourth Sunday of the month, March 22, fast approaches. It’s this year’s Maine Maple Sunday, a longstanding tradition in which maple producers open their sugarhouses to the public for a day — or weekend — of sweet treats and demonstrations of how maple syrup is made. Many producers offer games, activities, sugarbush tours, music and more for a full day of family fun.

The Maine Maple Producers Association predicts that, if the weather is good, nearly 100,000 people will turn out for the annual Maine Maple Celebration at one of the estimated 100 sugarhouses participating around the state. Many sugarhouses are also open Saturday; click here, or the link below, for a list or call ahead to confirm if you plan to go that day.

A University of Maine study conducted last year found that Maine has the third-largest maple industry in the country, behind Vermont and New York. The study also shows the industry's annual statewide economic contribution, including multiplier effects, amounts to an estimated $48.7 million in output, 805 full- and part-time jobs and $25.1 million in labor income — plus Maine's maple industry has tremendous growth potential.

Late start

The 2015 season has started a little late for Waldo County producers, as it did last year, when some farmers tapped Feb. 23 — but then not again until almost mid-March. But they all say reserves from last season ensure plenty of syrup on Maine Maple Sunday for sampling over ice cream, in pies and baked beans, even spun into cotton candy.

“Sap is supposed to be running,” said Richard Lenfest of Ducktrap Valley Maple Farm in Belmont, “but basically temperatures have been too cold and unreliable. The temperature has to get above freezing. The real maple season, pretty much like last year, is going to come late.”

In addition to demonstrations and sweet treats, Lenfest offers Maple Sunday visitors the opportunity to snowshoe and cross-country ski. Seems he's been doing a fair amount of the former himself.

Lenfest said snow is at least three feet deep around his trees. “My buckets are sitting on the ground and the tops are level with the snow,” he said. He’s hoping rain will firm up the snow on the ground so he can “get around without snowshoes.”

C'mon sun!

Jerry Ireland of Ireland Hill Farm in Swanville tells a similar story. “We got a little bit on Friday and Saturday for our first actual maple syrup out of that run,” he said. “Twenty-five to 30 percent of our taps ran Friday — that’s a good sign.”

Like most producers, Ireland keeps an eye on weather forecasts, hoping for a seven- to eight-day stretch of 40 degree-plus temperatures with plenty of sun — perhaps with a few of those days this week in preparation for his first Maine Maple Sunday.

Ireland’s farm recently was certified by Homegrown by Heroes, a coalition of veterans and farmers that brings veterans into agriculture. A vet who served 13 years in U.S. Army Intelligence in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, Ireland believes he’s one of only two such certified maple producers in the country.

He ventured into maple syrup production three years ago, starting with 100 taps. Pleased with the result, he plans 1,500 to 2,000 taps this season — all with traditional buckets. “We don’t have any vacuum lines yet,” he said, “but we’ve built a new sugarhouse that’s fairly large, so that’s kind of exciting.”

On Saturday, March 21, Ireland plans a special day of hands-on farming experiences for visiting children. Among other activities, he hopes to take kids into the sugarbush “to see how we tap a tree.”

Repeat of last year?

Steve Bennett estimates more than 2,000 people visited his Beaver Hill Plantation in Freedom for Maine Maple Day last year. (See story.)

Sap ran about a day and a half last week from his taps. “We collected over 1,000 gallons — but it hasn’t run since,” he said in a phone interview March 15. “We’ll make some syrup before the week’s over. We just react to whatever the weather gives us — that’s the way it is.”

Last season, Bennett made his first syrup Feb. 23 and his last on April 19. “This year, who knows?” he said. “I’ve got a feeling it’ll be a repeat of last year, but it could go even later.”

Bennett introduced a new system with lines and a pump last year, tapping 900 trees. He plans to add 2,000 taps this year in another section of his farm, which bears the town of Freedom’s original name.

A big day

In Searsmont, Cathy and Mark Bradstreet operate Bradstreet Maple Farm, which has a custom-round log cabin sugarhouse, built about 10 years ago in the style of their custom-round log home. Among their preparations for Maine Maple Sunday, Mark says Cathy creates special decorations for the sugarhouse.

“It’s a big day for us,” Bradstreet said. “When the weather cooperates, we have 400 to 500 people here.” Among the treats offered are waffles and ice cream drizzled with syrup, and maple baked beans, which, he said, “are a big hit on a cold day.”

The sap has run “a little bit” so far this season, he said — four days last week — and he expected more to flow this week. “We’ll have syrup for Maine Maple Sunday,” he promised. A small family operation, Bradstreet Maple produces syrup in small batches with a wood-fired evaporator.

The Bradstreets hold a contest each year; contestants try to guess how many quarts of maple syrup the farm will produce. The prize is a quart of syrup. “We had three winners last year,” Bradstreet said.

Sweeten things up

Chris Simmons and his four daughters, aged 11, 16, 19 and 21, operate Simmons and Daughters Sugar House in Morrill. Two are currently away at college (in-state), but they come home to help when they can. So far the season hasn’t required much of their assistance.

“The sap’s been very slow,” Simmons said. “We got a little bit last week, enough to get started, enough to help sweeten things up in the sugar house. Mother Nature hasn’t blessed us yet this year.”

A small producer, Simmons puts out about 700 taps and, like Bradstreet, makes his syrup the old-fashioned way. “We’re a small family operation,” he said.

Nevertheless, they draw a crowd on Maine Maple Sunday. “Last year we gave away 1,200 cups of ice cream with maple syrup,” Simmons said, “and not everyone wanted that — so there probably were 1,500 to 1,700 people here. We were very happy.”

Maple cotton candy

In contrast, with close to 9,000 taps on 185 acres and state-of-the-art equipment, Kinney's Sugarhouse in Knox is Waldo County’s largest maple operation. In 2014, the Kinneys produced 2,000 gallons of maple syrup, down from their 3,000-gallon typical yield in a good year.

The brief warm spell last week generated about 4,000 gallons of sap, according to Lee Kinney, who runs the maple business with wife MaryAnne, so they’ll have some of this year’s product for the weekend celebration.

Also one of the state's largest producers of molded maple sugar confections, the Kinneys will be open both days with plenty to do and eat, including product samples.

When they first offered maple cotton candy a few years ago, it created such long lines that they now provide a separate tent with commercial cotton candy machines operated by a vendor from the Blue Hill Fair.

No sap — no worries

Hollis Edwards of Winterport owns and operates, with his son Seth, Eureka Farms in Palmyra, with 1,550 taps and a large, modern sugarhouse. Although Hollis has made maple syrup all his life — he comes from a Maine agricultural family — this commercial venture is just three years old.

Eureka's two days of Maine Maple festivities, which include horse-drawn sleigh rides, maple cotton candy, food prepared and served by the Palmyra Community Center, freshly cooked donuts with maple sugar and syrup over Gifford’s ice cream, drew 1,000 people last year, and Edwards expects 2,000 to 2,500 this weekend.

“This is a family day,” Edwards said. “People come and they stay.”

Problem is, Eureka is getting very little sap. But Edwards isn’t worried.

“If there’s no sap, we’ll run the evaporator with water just so people can see how it works,” he said. “People will be disappointed otherwise. You need to give ’em what they came for.”

For more information about Maine maple producers and products, visit mainemapleproducers.com/.