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WHILE the groggy Boston Red Sox were off to their worst start in years last week, up here in Vermont another traditional source of New England pride - the maple syrup harvest - already appears to have had its worst season in decades. Maple sap, which usually ``runs'' fluidly through the north-country maples during the freezing nights and warm days of early spring, has been slowed to a languid trickle this year.
The problem has been an unusually warm winter and fickle weather - along with maple trees battered by acid rain and defoliated last summer by a leaf-chewing insect called the pear thrip.
Last week, some of the biggest farms across southern Vermont admitted that their ``sugaring'' season was over - some farmers joking ruefully that they had collected barely enough syrup to cover a stack of pancakes. It's the fourth poor season in a row for Vermont, which produces half the nation's maple syrup.
At the Harlow Sugar House just north of Putney they pulled the taps from the trees last Thursday and declared the season a disaster.
``My taps got so sticky and gummed up that I had to pull 'em and say, `I hope next year is better,''' says owner Donald Harlow.
The Harlow farm, established in 1928, is nestled in a ``sugarbush'' off Route 5, a scenic stretch of road north of Putney that also supports Santa Land and Basketville (which claims to have the world's largest assortment of baskets for sale). Sugarbush is the name for a group of the ``rock'' or ``sugar'' maples that produce the lighter, thicker, and more flavorful syrup Vermont is famous for.
The mellow winter didn't even leave enough snow cover on the ground to insulate the roots, Mr. Harlow says. Thus the roots froze too deeply this year. ``The last season it was this bad was 1947,'' he offers, saying the maples are also ``under stress'' this year: ``There's more dead branches; they've taken a beating from the thrips.''
Farmers say it takes about 40 gallons of boiled sap to make a gallon of syrup. In 1985 Vermont produced 523,000 gallons of syrup. By 1987 the number was 275,000 gallons, though last year it was higher. The final 1989 harvest won't be known for weeks. Reports from ``the Northern Kingdom,'' the farms just south of Canada, indicate last week's yield there was excellent.
STILL, Vermont Department of Agriculture spokesman Everett Willard says the season is even worse than it looks because the number of trees tapped is up 120 percent from the mid-1970s: ``It used to take 4.8 taps to make a gallon of syrup, now it's 8.9 taps. In a normal year now we'll yield 750,000 gallons.''
When normal weather returns, so will big syrup harvests, experts say.
Retailers are worried that the poor season will drive prices higher. Vermont ``Grade A Fancy'' already costs $40 to $50 a gallon.
``Real syrup is evolving into a gourmet food, a rich man's food,'' says Jim McCarthy, who owns The Sawmill Country Store, just outside Putney. His store sells syrup made by local postmaster Marty Collins, at $45.99 a gallon. Restaurants and pancake houses now regularly ``cut'' their syrup, he says: ``They don't use uncut Grade A - that's like putting liquid gold on the table.''
Local town economies will suffer mainly around the margin, experts say, since ``sugaring'' is mostly a farming sideline. Other major syrup states include New York, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Virginia.
Canada has been making up recent shortfalls.
Vermont prides itself on having the strictest syrup standards in the nation. Inspectors from the state Department of Weights and Measures visit stores at least twice a year and regularly remove syrup that is ``even one degree too thin or dark,'' Mr. Willard says.
``We take our syrup extremely seriously,'' Mr. McCarthy adds.
The paradox of the current harvest, Harlow says, is that even though it's small, it's the sweetest syrup in several years. ``Don't ask me why.''