ASHFIELD, Massachusetts (Reuters Life!) -The sugar maple trees are tapped and their rich sap is starting to drain into buckets across New England, as a midwinter thaw heralds the start of the fleeting syrup production season.
But challenges loom for local harvesters, racing against time and the elements to gather enough sap to boil into the sweet delicacy, first cultivated centuries ago by Native American communities.
Despite the thaw, snow piles of three feet (one meter) in the northern woods and high snowbanks along back roads after the stormy January have complicated the start of sugaring season.
The need to strap on bulky snowshoes or fire up snowmobiles to set taps and haul away sap in the widespread maple groves has slowed them down a bit, producers say.
And if setting-up is delayed for what is a mere four-to six-week season, and temperatures become too warm, too fast, sugaring can seem like it is ending before it begins, experts say.
Harvesters need an extended pattern of mild days and chilly nights for the sap to run.
"It means getting started earlier than you normally would, because it is going to take a lot of time in the woods," said Brian Stowe, head of sugaring operations at the University of Vermont Proctor Maple Research Center, in Underhill Center.
Snowfall hit its highest since 2001 in Vermont, the biggest U.S. maple syrup producer, Stowe said this week.
"I've heard a lot of people say that they are a little bit behind this year on tapping," he said.
Vermont produced a whopping 890,000 gallons of maple syrup last year, nearly half of the nation's total haul of 1.96 million gallons.
Further south in Massachusetts, hopes are high for a major turnaround after a dismal 2010 season, figured as the worst on record in many counties. Temperatures warmed too quickly last year, slashing the sap run to just three weeks.
"It's pretty easy for people to feel that this year's going to be better than last year," said Tom McCrumm, owner of South Face Farm in Ashfield, Massachusetts.
The state's output in 2010 plunged 37 percent from the prior year to just 29,000 gallons.
"Last year was a disaster, so it couldn't be any worse," McCrumm said. "An average season this year would be 20 to 50 percent better."
Aside from weather, the pesky Asian longhorned beetle, brought to North America from China, has plagued native U.S. hardwood trees, including sugar maples, in Massachusetts and New York, the nation's second-largest syrup producer.
The insects are remarkably destructive to trees as they bore holes in the bark to deposit their eggs.
In Maine, the third-largest syrup producer, experts fret less about the snow and the beetles than they do about the unpredictability of February-to-April temperatures.
"Larger producers get started early, because with a big sugarbush (maple orchard), you have to get at it early on," said Kathy Hopkins with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension in Skowhegan. "So a lot of places are tapped and ready to go."
There are pluses to snow, too. If temperatures warm overly fast, snow helps trees stay cool at night, keeping the sap flowing longer into early spring. It also provides much-needed moisture to the maples.
Ideally, in the previous summer, trees will get abundant sunshine and some rain to help produce necessary carbohydrates internally, much of which maples store over wintertime.
To produce syrup, a traditional favorite topping for pancakes or waffles, the purest sap is boiled until it concentrates into an amber nectar. Forty gallons of sap make about one gallon of syrup.
Maple syrup retails for anywhere from $33 to $62 per gallon.
Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Jerry Norton