September 17th, 2012 by
Sugaring

Sugaring. Credit: Rachael Traub/Flickr

Growing up in Vermont, where one in four trees is a sugar maple, March meant that friends with sugar houses would start tapping their trees for the sap to make maple syrup. Winter meant sugar on snow, summer meant maple ice cream and weekends in any season meant buckwheat pancakes soaked in the good stuff. The sugar maple is the state tree and most people would tell you that maple is the state flavor as well. It’s part of the culture.

It’s also part of the economy. Maple syrup means more than delicious breakfasts and fond memories; it’s a multimillion dollar industry. In Vermont, which accounts for nearly half of all U.S. production, it has a market value of over 30 million dollars. The sugar maple grows only in Canada and the U.S., which means it’s up to us to satisfy the cravings of an entire globe.

The trees — and the industry — depend on northeastern climates. The trees rely on snowpack to keep their roots from freezing and the flow of sap relies on the cycle of freezing nights and thawing days typical of late winter and early spring. Without that sap, of course, there would be none of the sweet stuff.

Tubing for sugar maple sap.

Tubing for sugar maple sap. A new nozzle is drilled in March. Credit: Christine Fournier/Flickr

That’s why researchers are so interested in what effect changing temperatures might have on the tree and its sap production. Maple syrup is a fickle business. So many factors go into determining a given season’s yield that trying to predict a good or bad year is like playing darts blindfolded. So, the U.S. Forest Service and Cornell University have been patiently conducting their research for decades to collect a clear enough picture to identify trends. What they’ve found is that northeastern producers like those in Vermont and New Hampshire may continue to see the season shifting earlier. Many producers are already tapping their trees weeks earlier than their parents and grandparents did.

There may be even graver news for producers in the southern areas of the maple’s range, such as Pennsylvania. The research suggests they should be prepared for an overall reduction in yields in the next 50 to 100 years. The sugaring season is not just starting earlier, it’s also getting shorter. The Proctor Maple Research Center of the University of Vermont has found that the season decreased by an average of 10 percent throughout the northeast over the last 40 years.

These findings pose more questions. Will the sugar maples be able to migrate north fast enough? Will the industry be prepared to follow them? What effect will losing such a key industry have on areas in New England and Quebec? Let’s hope that 100 years from now, children can still look forward to sugar on snow, or we could be in for a bitter future.