Maple researchers say Vermont syrup yields can be maintained, even as season shrinks

Maple sugaring in Westminster. Creative Commons Photo Flickr user putneypics.

The weather is always a wildcard for the sap run, but 2012’s unprecedented temperature swings were unique, Lee Light said. Luckily, Hollister Hill Farm is a diversified operation, and the Lights were able to weather the decreased syrup production.

“It seems like it’s getting more unpredictable,” she said. “We are not putting all our maple syrup in one bucket, that’s for sure.”

The Lights’ experience may be a sign of what’s to come for the maple sugar industry in Vermont. This fall, the U.S. Forest Service and Cornell University are publicizing the results of a recent study showing that climate change most likely will shorten the maple syrup season and shift syrup production northward by the end of the 21st century. Productions in the sugar maple’s southern habitat will peter out, while the annual maple sugaring season in its central and northern range will arrive sooner and last for fewer days, maple experts warn. While current models show Vermont’s maple habitat will remain viable in the next century, scientists believe the state’s maple sugar producers will need to adapt to maintain current levels of sap production.

It takes a unique set of weather conditions, including a good snowpack and a combination of freezing nights and warmer days, to make a good maple sap season. If climate change continues to warm North America, it could create winners and losers in maple syrup production, said Steve Childs, a maple specialist at Cornell University. Sugar sap runs most likely will cease in West Virginia and Ohio, but maples might find Quebec and northern New York more hospitable habitat than before, he said.

“Some places would gain runs, others would lose runs,” Childs said.

For much of the maple sugar habitat, the timing of the season will change. Sap will begin to run closer to the beginning of the calendar year, and farmers will have to be ready, he said. Northeast maple producers who tapped their trees earlier than usual had a good syrup season, he said, but tapping early can be hard for maple sugar veterans to visualize as an option.

“We just never even thought about tapping in February back in the ’70s,” Childs said.

It’s best to be prepared for a surprise warming spell, as the sugaring season will also be shorter in duration. The Proctor Maple Research Center for the University of Vermont has found that the state’s sap season has decreased by about 3½ days in the last half-century, said Tim Perkins, director of the University of Vermont’s Proctor Maple Research Center. That may not sound like much, but since the average sap season lasts just over a month, that’s 10 percent of the season, Perkins said.

If nature were allowed to take its course, a warming trend would mean that maple tree habitat would migrate northward towards Quebec and eventually peter out in Vermont. However, such a scenario doesn’t factor in a human’s ability to shape the environment, Perkins said.

“If we want maple trees to grow in Vermont, we’re going to have maple trees grow in Vermont,” Perkins said. “We have maple trees in Florida.”

Of course, having maple trees and having a syrup season can be mutually exclusive, Childs said. It takes the cold to make the sap sweet.

“We can tap trees in the fall and we’d find that the sugar content just isn’t there,” Childs said.

But sugar producers do have some control over their own destinies if they adapt to these trends, experts say. Along with being prepared to tap early, the best thing maple farms can do is to improve the sanitation of their sap collection. Research shows that maple sugar producers who use new taps and new plastic vacuum lines each year can realize up to 100 percent more sap flow during the latter part of the season than producers who reuse taps and collect with buckets and old lines. That’s because new taps and lines don’t allow yeast to clog holes drilled in maple trees. It even beats attempts at sterilizing old equipment, Childs said.

Evan Branon, one of Tom and Cecile’s four sons, stands near the Branon Family Maple Orchards evaporator.
Evan Branon with the Branon Family Maple Orchards evaporator. Photo by Dirk Van Susteren

And more innovation may be on the way to help strengthen Vermont’s sap run in the 21st century. Maple experts at the Proctor Center are busily conducting experiments to find other tips and tricks to keep the sap flowing, Perkins said.

“We do all the crazy things so others don’t have to,” Perkins said.

Another saving grace is that Vermont’s maple sugar producers are used to dealing with the variables of the sap season. Dutton Berry Farm in southern Vermont only experienced a small drop-off of maple syrup production from 1,000 gallons to 900 gallons in 2012. Wendy and Paul Dutton decided to gamble on tapping early with the first sustained warm spell, and it paid off. Crazy weather is just par for the course when it comes to maple sugaring, Wendy Dutton said.

“This wasn’t the first year that’s happened,” Dutton said. “Come end of February, you try to be ready.”

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