How Climate Change Threatens Maple Syrup Production

It’s spring in the Northeastern U.S. and Canada. Cabanes à Sucre and sugar shacks open their doors to locals and tourists alike as a time worn herald of the maple sugar season. Guests can be treated to Acadian-style music and dancing, and some shacks are filled with long tables topped with traditional red and white checkered cloths and the pairs of wooden spoons for making rhythm in time to the music. Sleighs pulled by draught horses take guests on tours of maple forests, and the sap evaporators hum along, powered by wood fired heat.

The aroma of fresh maple syrup hangs heavily in the air.

Cabanes à Sucre and sugar shacks are known for the food: platters of glazed country ham, baked beans, béchamel omelettes, crêpes, pea soup, pancakes, doughnuts, chômeur pudding, tourtière pork pie and pork creton grace the communal tables. The feast is a seasonal rite of passage. Each dish contains maple syrup and the whole of sugar shack culture depends upon it. It is the lynchpin in its signature culinary specialties, and the economy and cultural traditions it sustains.

The regional desire for syrup as a genuine connection to Eastern North America foodways is matched by worldwide demand for maple. Recently, the appetite for maple has focused attention on the agility of syrup producers in North America to satisfy a growing customer base and their thirst for a micronutrient rich, natural sweetener. It is precarious balance between the ever-changing syrup season and variable production schedule. Add to this mix, a cultural demand for long-standing traditions like Maple Sugar Sunday and sugar shack festivals.

The result is a significant agricultural tourism and export economy, heavily dependent on the changes in the weather.

In the past decade, syrup makers in the Northeastern United States and Eastern Canada have seen a yearly average of seven percent growth in demand for maple products. In this same decade, maple producers also weathered erratic changes in climate and temperature — learning quickly to adjust their sugaring methods. Producers in the most southern and western maple regions (Michigan and Pennsylvania) report a 75 percent reduction in overall yield.

Trees tapped too early can get dry spiles, spouts that are drilled into the trees to collect syrup, and a halt in flow. Too late, and production quantities fall. Larger operations use tubing and pumps that all but eliminate the concern for dryness, as the suction created by the tube system helps to increase yield. The collective challenge however, boils down to farmer’s “readiness” and an aptitude that is one part meteorology mixed with one part flexibility and modern know-how.

“We try to educate our producers on the effects of climate change. They know it’s happening,” states Kathy Hopkins, special adviser to the Maine Maple Producers Association. “It’s not just tradition that dictates when to tap anymore. They have to look to climate changes and new patterns.”

Historically, syrup makers consistently relied on cold and heavy, snow-packed winters. Tapping would begin in late winter to early spring, with sap running through early May for many in the Northeast. An odd season here or there was never reason for panic. Now, irregularity is the norm. Inconsistent weather (extremely dry or extremely wet winters) and earlier spring-like temperatures, requires of maple producers to be at the ready as early as December for southern and western regions, and in January for in New England states and across Quebec, Canada.

“Some of our region’s sugarmakers have told us that the biggest challenge is readiness. We have monthly meetings year-round and a maple conference that we hold to share best practices. We are trying to partner sugarmakers in the north to share their expertise with producers to the south, to teach them resilience and how to troubleshoot the shifts in the environment,” says Hopkins.

While all maple trees can technically be tapped for sugar making, the best tasting sap comes from the Sugar Maple (Acer Saccharum). Trees over one foot in diameter can be tapped, with older, wider trees accommodating up to four spiles.

The sap pumping action starts in the maple tree when the weather begins to rise above freezing during the day, and dips below freezing at night. Sap stored in the tree’s roots travel up the trunk to the crown and branches in anticipation of budding and leaf formation. Once a tree begins to bud fully in warmer weather, the sap changes flavor and can’t be used. In total, producers extract roughly ten percent of a tree’s sap.

The maple’s sap naturally has a two-to-three percent sugar content. Reverse osmosis and evaporation concentrate the sap’s sugars, creating the final maple product. Lighter syrups are the hallmark of the early tapping season, with darker, amber-colored syrups to follow. The season lasts 25 to 30 days in southern producing states, while the Canadian season averages 12 to 20 days per year. Farms in Vermont have begun to experiment with the use of maple saplings to produce syrup: young trees are topped and vacuum pumped to extract sap. The result produces large quantities of syrup without the dependence on older, deeply forested farms.

Maple syrup is the emblematic sweetener of choice in the Northeast. Historic self-reliance from highly taxed imports bolstered a culture of cooks in New England and Canada who relied on maple rather than cane sugar in their recipes. Not only was it a home-grown commodity, it was representative of the northeast’s stolid, “do-it-yourself” nature. The skill was taught to early European settlers by the First-Nation tribes who used the sugar as a preservative and ready calorie source.

“I feel like it is a connection to my ancestors and my family every time I eat maple,” says Jean François Clermont. Clermont and his wife Laura Prichard are Canadian and put on an elaborate French-style Cabane à Sucre in Kennebunkport, Maine. “We love the meal, the dancing and the maple taffy on snow. Every dish is made with maple. We wanted to share this part of our heritage because it is so much of who we are.” Clermont and Prichard join forces with local chefs, maple producers, farmers, and musicians to stage the event. “It’s not just about us – but how we come together as a community around this amazing little product.”

According the the National Agricultural Statistics Service and the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers, the northeastern U.S. and Canadian provinces combined, make an average of 175 million pounds of maple syrup per year. This adds up to a multibillion dollar business on both sides of the border, not including the ancillary businesses and communities it supports.

Producer Keith Harris of Harris Farm in Dayton, Maine states: “Sugaring is part of what we do. My father did it. My grandfather did it and it’s what we do here in the winter. It’s one side of our farm production. Everyone comes together and it is a huge part of getting people to the farm to see what we do.” Harris Farm is known for its dairy and produce. The family has seen its Maple Sugar weekends grow exponentially since they began offering an open-house event in the early 1980s.

“We started out with a small sugar house next to our dairy. Now we have expanded our operation to a big post-and-beam sugar shack where we boil our own sap and hold tours,” states Harris. “It’s a weekend that people come out and we usually sell out of everything. The wait for the pancake breakfasts and doughnuts is usually two hours long. Folks sign up for their farm shares and most people try out our milk. Maple is a win-win for everyone on this farm.”

“We are paying close attention, and luckily, here in Maine in the heart of maple sugar making, we have not been hit too hard by any climate changes,” states Harris. “We keep records and are steady in our production. The biggest thing is for us to be ready to make changes when we need to. I think we are up for the challenge.”