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Early spring was sweet to syrup producers

Maple syrup maker Dave Rogotzke (right) explains to John Stangl of St. Paul how he keeps samples of each day's syrup production. Stangl came to Rogotzke's sugar shack on Saturday to pick up 12 quarts of maple syrup for cooking and gift giving. Bob King /

Like everything else about this crazy spring, maple syruping season started early and ended early. And despite unseasonably warm weather in March, some maple syrup harvesters had banner seasons.

Ralph Fideldy of Cohasset had his best season in 30 years this spring, turning out nearly 1,100 gallons of syrup with 2,400 taps in his maple trees.

Typically, below-freezing nights and above-freezing days are most productive for syruping.

"Somebody forgot to tell the trees," said Fideldy, who operates the Timber Sweet maple syrup business.

In Duluth, Dave Rogotzke's Simple Gifts syruping business also had an excellent season, which ended Wednesday, much earlier than usual.

"It started early, and it's done early," Rogotzke said. "It usually ends about the time the frogs start calling. They started Sunday."

Rogotzke harvested 1,125 gallons of syrup with about 5,000 taps. He and Fideldy both use vacuum-pump systems to gather the syrup through a network of plastic lines that run from the trees to a central gathering tank.

"It started running the seventh of March," Rogotzke said. "It started coming in. I was just amazed. Every morning I'd come back, and there would be 1,500 or 2,000 gallons of sap. When it did freeze, the trees really took off."

Typically, the ratio of sap to finished syrup can be 35 to 1 or 40 to 1.

This was about an average year for Rogotzke, he said. Last year was his best, when he harvested 1,277 gallons. He sells much of his syrup locally and won first prize for his medium amber syrup at the 2009 Minnesota State Fair.

Don Mount, who has tapped maples in Duluth Township for about 35 years, said his harvest has been about 10 percent below his long-term average. He uses bags to collect the sap rather than a vacuum system.

"It's been really unusual," Mount said. "Last year at this time, we had not made any syrup. I've never finished in March, and it looks like I will. But it was such a beautiful, easy season. I didn't have to use snowshoes at all."

Fideldy couldn't say why his syrup yield was so high this year. He attended the International Syrup Convention in Maine last year and picked up some tips, which he integrated into his system this year.

"But I changed too many variables to put my thumb on one thing," Fideldy said.

The run is also over at the University of Minnesota Duluth, where the Recreational Sports Outdoor Program taps maples and teaches elementary school classes about syruping.

"Our normal mode is the last week of March and the first week of April," said Tim Bates, associate director of the RSOP. "This year, things started three to four weeks early. We still have groups coming, and the sap's not going to run."