By Himanee Gupta-Carlson
Pat Imbimbo starts plotting out spring in the cold darkness of January. For him and for his family, this means trekking across the 101 acres that make up their Slate Valley Farm, inspecting the health of their 2,600 or so maple trees, and preparing to install taps, buckets and other equipment needed to capture the sweet flow of sap when it starts running.
By tradition, Imbimbo likes to start putting the taps into the trees on the first full moon of the year, or shortly thereafter. Then, his daughter, Gina Willis, waits for him to tell her to start opening them.
Willis sells Slate Valley’s maple and honey products at the Saratoga Farmers’ Market. She smiles in delight as she recalls how customers start asking her in late January if the sap’s running.
“It’s the anticipation, the excitement,” says Willis. “A sign of spring coming. It’s like that little animal … the groundhog. We wait for it to come out of the ground every year.”
In general, maple tree sap starts to flow when daytime temperatures rise above freezing (32 degrees Fahrenheit) and nighttime temperatures go below freezing. That fluctuation creates a pressure in the trees that encourage the sap to flow.
“We get excited as the time gets closer and closer,” says Willis. “We have one tree kind of near the house that sort of acts as a gauge for us. As the temperatures start getting warmer, we’re checking it all the time.”
Maple sap is the first official agricultural harvest of the year in New York State. But like the uncertainty as to whether or not the groundhog sees its shadow the actual beginning and duration of the season can vary. In addition, Willis notes, the sap flow is a bit temperamental. If it gets too cold or too warm, it might stop and then restart again.
Behind the excitement are long hours. Forty gallons of sap are required to produce a single gallon of syrup. The boiling begins as soon as the sap starts accumulating, often taking place at night when the day work is done and lasting for Willis sometimes until 3 a.m.
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