June 17, 2019
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How climate change is affecting the Maine maple syrup industry

On a spring day so cold the sap froze in the few old-fashioned buckets that Mark Cooper of Coopers Maple Products still uses, the Windham maple producer talked about the changes he has noticed over the 31 years he’s been in business.

The season used to start in late February and run through early April.

“It was pretty consistent,” he said.

Not anymore. These days, it’s not uncommon for him to make maple syrup in January or to have balmy 65 degree February days followed by huge snow storms and frigid temperatures in March. He’s noticing his maple trees have struggled some, with fungal diseases or branches on otherwise healthy trees that drop to the ground for no reason he can ascertain. Red maples are moving in and sugar maples are losing ground, he’s noticed. Big wind and snow storms also have taken a toll on the trees. And even when the sap is running, there’s just not as big a flow as there used to be.

“We certainly have seen a change, and not for the better,” Cooper said.

Climate change is going to exert a toll on the golden maple syrup we love to pour over pancakes, ice cream and French toast. In fact, it already is, experts said Thursday at a media event organized by the Natural Resources Council of Maine and held at Cooper’s farm. Climate change won’t be the end of maple syrup here, they said, but it will tax producers, likely putting some smaller ones out of business. Warmer temperatures and drier conditions are changing the makeup of our forests, which are predicted to have 40 percent fewer maple trees by the end of the 21st century.

“It’s going to be harder and harder for Mainers to produce maple syrup,” said Andy Whitman, a forest scientist and the director of sustainable economies at Manomet, a Brunswick-based conservation nonprofit organization. “With fewer trees, a shorter tapping season and trees producing less syrup. … It does mean a real change in Maine.”

The Maine maple industry has been growing in economic importance to the state, with more than 700,000 gallons of maple syrup made here last year. It contributes nearly $30 million to the Maine economy annually and makes Maine the country’s third most important maple syrup producing state, after Vermont and New York. But the industry is being stressed by the effects of a changing climate.

Whitman said the tapping season in Maine starts about eight days earlier and ends 11 days earlier than it did 50 years ago, making a season that is 10 percent shorter. He also said scientists are predicting a steep decline in maples over the next decade. A University of Maine study has found that the composition of Maine forests is changing, with warming temperatures leading to more beech trees and fewer maple trees.

“The maple sugar industry is an iconic industry for our state,” he said. “There’s going to be steep challenges. The smallest producers who use old technology will probably go out of business.”

Officials from the Natural Resources Council of Maine called for climate action at all levels, from local to state to federal and beyond. More initiatives, research and programs are needed to try to mitigate challenges posed by climate change, they said.

“Sweeping climate change under the rug won’t change anything,” Kristin Jackson, the NRCM federal outreach coordinator, said.

Cooper has already made a couple of major technological shifts during his decades as a maple producer. He started with buckets, then moved to a gravity tubing system, then most recently to a vacuum pump-operated system. That system lets him collect sap even when the conditions are less than ideal, and makes his trees more productive. That’s a help, he said, but can only do so much.

“Our biggest challenge is getting decent weather to produce enough sap flow,” Cooper said. “We’ve had below average production over the last seven years, compared to the previous 20 years. Those wide swings of temperatures are something we didn’t use to deal with.”

Still, despite everything, he loves making syrup and is looking forward to the crowds and festivities of Maine Maple Sunday, which will mark its 35th year on Sunday, March 25. The people who come to his farm will enjoy a big breakfast, complete with maple syrup, of course. They’ll have the chance to meet some of his farm animals and will smell the fragrant aroma of simmering maple sap. And maybe they’ll come away with an understanding of how weather and climate changes can affect his industry.

“I am worried a little bit,” Cooper said. “There are challenges. But I know we’ll be making syrup as long as we want to.”

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