While most Mainers enjoy the kickoff of the state’s maple season in late February or early March, Eric Ellis’ syrup season started up in late January, with his workers beginning to drill holes and lay lines for the trees in Big Six Township, north of Jackman.
The early drilling was partly because of the sheer size of the operation, said the Madison-based syrup processor; his production team taps some 80,000 trees to produce somewhere between 15,000 to 20,000 gallons of maple syrup annually.
But the early start comes also because it pays these days for maple producers to be prepared to catch an early run, Ellis said. He’s been processing syrup for about three decades, long enough, he said, to see the season creep earlier in the calendar year.
“Over time, you certainly see that, whether it’s this decade or three or four decades back,” he said. “We’re consciously starting a little sooner.”
This Sunday, March 24, is Maine Maple Sunday, when sugarhouses across the state open their doors to the public for tours, tastings and demonstrations.
Maine maple syrup producers had to contend with some unusual syrup seasons in recent years. While veteran producers are quick to point out that variability is part of the package when it comes to harvesting maple syrup, talk of climate change has become more common in the maple-producing community, especially after a very unusual 2012 season that saw temperatures spike to 80 degrees during a March stretch.
“For a lot of people and some states, that was the end of the season,” said Kathy Hopkins, a maple syrup educator with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. “They basically hadn’t even started, and it was over.”
Getting in the flow
A successful maple season depends on a delicate balance of warming days and freezing nights, and the balmy weather cut last year’s sap season short. It was a terrible season for producers in the southern part of the state, while northern syrup-makers did better, but not great. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics, while the state’s maple producers added 30,000 taps in 2012, overall syrup production flat-lined in comparison to 2011, with 360,000 gallons of the sticky stuff.
Agricultural officials have begun to warn that altered weather patterns will mean change might become the new norm for maple production in the United States. In 2010, researchers with the USDA Forest Service and Cornell University warned that rising temperatures caused by climate change were already affecting the sap season and will continue to shift production earlier in the calendar year. The research, which projects into the next 100 years, shows that there will be geographic winners and losers in the syrup industry if the expected warming trend continues and the sugar belt shifts north. Production will peter out in the southern range of syrup production, in places like Pennsylvania and northern Virginia, while some northern locales in Maine and Vermont may see stronger sap runs.
State processors are already adapting to the earlier season, said Lyle Merrifield, president of the Maine Maple Producers Association.
“Ten years ago, if you tapped on Valentine’s Day, that was plenty soon,” said Merrifield. “I personally know someone this year who made 22 gallons of syrup in January.”
USDA figures show that maple syrup production across New England was down 27 percent from 2011 to 2012. Not only do maple trees need warm temperatures during the day and below-freezing temperatures at night during the sap season, they also require the ground to be frozen and snow-packed around their base to prevent them from warming too quickly.
Climate change is no longer being characterized exclusively by warming temperatures. Instead, scientists are warning of less predictable and more powerful weather events, including drought, that could ruin maple syrup production, said Brian Chabot, an evolutionary biologist with Cornell University’s Maple Program. Sap is like the tree’s blood, and good sap flow depends on the health of the tree. Maples are not drought-resistant, he said.
“If they’re not growing, one would anticipate less sugar [will be] available,” Chabot said.
This year, however, a deep snowpack and frozen ground won’t be a problem, although maple producers who didn’t tap their trees before the Feb. 9 blizzard might struggle to get ready for this sap season, as it can be difficult to lay and maintain sap lines in in deep snow.
While the New England region suffered a cut in syrup production last year, it experienced a record-breaking season in 2011. While luck of the meteorological draw plays some part in the difference between a good year and a bad one, many of Maine’s syrup producers are making their own luck during the sap season. They are preparing to start earlier and employing innovative new techniques to boost sap capture, said Merrifield.
Most prominently, many Maine producers, and even some hobbyists, are switching from traditional taps to vacuum lines, which capture more of the sap. The lines also keep sap flowing in suboptimal weather conditions, he said.
“It allows us to get sap when barometric pressure isn’t quite right, and get something good out of what would be a bad season,” Merrifield said.
Many are also heeding the advice of recent research showing that keen attention to sanitation can pay off in increased yields, said Chabot. Researchers with Cornell and the University of Vermont have found that replacing vacuum lines and taps annually can cut down on the bacteria that can clog drilled holes.
Many producers also are turning to reverse-osmosis machines to remove 75 percent of the water in sap before the sap reaches evaporators. While that does little to boost sap production, it helps keep fuel costs down, said Ellis, who is vice president of the Maine Maple Association.
The Bacon Family Farm in Sidney has used many of these techniques in recent years. They use vacuum lines to connect their 2,500 maple trees, and reverse-osmosis to remove much of the water before the sap reaches evaporators. They’ve also kept a worker out in the maple stands during the sap runs to keep an eye on all the lines, said Shelley Bacon, co-owner of the farm.
“We’ve found that just by doing that, we’re able to get more out of the woods than we ever have before,” she said.
But even with the measures they have taken to improve sap yields, syrup production was down by half in 2012, Bacon said. While she believes that such variability in weather isn’t unusual, some researchers are trying to predict what new weather patterns might emerge for future maple producers in the region, and to map out what producers can do to continue to produce syrup in the state.
Jenny Shrum, a doctoral biology and ecology student at the University of Maine, is researching how to better define what temperature rises and weather variability will mean for sap flow, as well as possible remediation steps that can be taken to safeguard the state’s maple flow. She’s reaching out to some of the state’s smaller producers to record data about weather and sap flow in their maple stands; the data then will be incorporated into a larger project trying to create national climate change models for Maine’s microclimates. It could also shed light on what affects the sap season, from soil composition to annual rainfall.
Growing awareness of climate change might spur better planning, breeding and management of future maple trees. Shrum has been collecting maple seedlings from warmer climates that she and other researchers will grow in a lab and at an experimental plot in Baxter State Park to see if they have genes that will help the trees better tolerate heat and drought than native trees. It’s a kind of seed and gene selection that is more common in traditional agriculture than in tree breeding; the thinking is that Maine trees might not be able to adapt quick enough to the changing conditions.
Future maple producers might also want to take advantage of soil data to carefully plan and manage maple stands and maximize production, said Kip Kolesinskas, a regional soil conservation consultant with American Farmland Trust. Modern soil data collected from satellites can show the best places to base future maple stands and how best to manage them to strengthen the trees and improve sap flow.
“Anyone who’s managing [maple] forests, they need to be thinking very long term,” Kolesinskas said. “You’re looking at land acquisition.”
Such forward thinking might pay off in the marketplace. In 2011, the value of maple syrup production was $12.2 million. Despite the variability of the sap season, maple syrup production has been a booming business, and the number of state licenses for commercial production has increased, said Hopkins.
Increased interest in maple production can be attributed to the premium price of syrup, as it becomes more sought-after as a popular sweetener for customers who are health-conscious or who value local food production. USDA statistics show that the price of maple syrup has increased by $1.10 per gallon from 2009 to 2011, the last year data was released by agricultural statisticians.
That price could increase as some states are knocked out of maple syrup production, and the predicted warming trend could make Maine maple syrup more valuable in the marketplace, said Shrum.
“We might be a bigger player,” she said. “As far as the nation goes, we might be better poised.”