While record high temperatures just had many of us sporting T-shirts in late winter (and uttering the words “climate change” to each other in hushed tones) the unseasonably warm weather sent maple syrup producers into action. Rising thermometers signal the start of the sap-tapping season since the fluctuations in temperature—above freezing during the day and below freezing at night—is what gets maple sap flowing. “I was completely tapped by the last week of January,” says Eric Randall, owner of Randall’s Maple Products and President of the North American Maple Syrup Council. “I’ve never tapped that early.”
Sugarmakers, as they’re affectionately called in the industry, are finding themselves on guard earlier and earlier in the year. “My grandparents wouldn’t even go into the woods until the first of March,” says Randall, whose family has been producing maple syrup since 1848. “If you use that attitude today you would have missed half the crop this year.”
According to the University of Vermont’s Proctor Maple Research Center, sugaring in Vermont starts an average of 8.3 days earlier than it did 50 years ago. But tapping sooner doesn’t necessarily mean the harvest is botched.
If the temperature dips back down and the springtime fluctuations of a daytime thaw and night-time freeze return, sugarmakers can still reap a decent crop. It allows the tree to ‘recharge’ or collect the sugar it stored in its roots from the previous summer. A good season sees that fluctuation happen five to ten times during the five-to-six week window that sugarmakers have to collect sap before the wound they create in the tree heals over.
What is more concerning for Randall and other sugarmakers is extended warm spells and sunny days before the collection window closes. “The profound influence of the sunlight causes a chemical change that triggers growth,” says Randall, who is also a retired professor of botany. “When that happens in the tree, when the buds expand or swell, the sap becomes unusable.”
The result is a bitter, unpalatable syrup that can’t be bottled and sold. But luckily, the spring-like weather was short-lived and Randall reports that this year’s syrup is tasting sweet and delicious as expected.
But it’s not just changes in temperature that affect maple syrup producers. Canadian sugarmaker Ray Bonenberg, who has been tapping the sweet stuff in Northeastern Ontario for over 20 years, has struggled with a multitude of weather extremes. “The winds tend to be more violent,” explains Bonenberg. “If the wind comes from the north or east, it cools the tops of the trees and the sap won’t run.”
Stronger winds can also affect infrastructure, like at Eric Randall’s sugarbush where he runs 25 miles of tubing through the woods in order to collect sap at a central location. “Branches up on the tops of trees come down and hit our lines,” explains Randall. “All you need to have is a branch the size of your wrist to knock a spile out of the tree.”
While errant weather causes alarm for the environmentalist in many of us, maple syrup producers like Randall and Bonenberg are somewhat accustomed to the unpredictable. “From a sugarmakers’ perspective, every year is unique,” Randall says. “We are inordinately attached to the whims of the weather.” Adapting to the weather could mean being prepared for early starts to the season or using automated systems that can quickly detect damage from falling branches, for example.
So, should we start stockpiling bottles of the sweet stuff when we’re faced with an exceptionally warm or windy winter? Randall insists it isn’t necessary, pressing that most producers are able to maintain a decent reserve of syrup, which has a long shelf life. “The idea is to have enough in reserve from year to year,” he explains. “If we do have a bad weather event or short season, there isn’t a dip in the market and a gouging of prices.”
While you may not need to worry about the taste or availability of what you’re pouring on your pancakes just yet, it doesn’t mean you can disregard climate change’s effect on maple syrup production entirely. So I’ll just be over here, actually crossing my fingers for many more long, cold, not-too-windy winters.