Maple Syrup Season Came a Month Early, and Here's Why That's a Bad Thing

"Are we building businesses to hand down to our kids, just to have the weather change too much for them to harvest enough syrup to make a living?"

Maple syrup tapping

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Temperatures are heating up in maple syrup-making regions, and while some producers are basking in the abundance of higher yields, others are fearing the long-term consequences of an earlier-than-expected season. 

Admirers of maple syrup cannot deny the condiment's power to transform fluffy pancakes or serve as the perfect bath for dunking bacon. Beyond being delicious, it's a rather lucrative industry too, raking in about $147 million a year in the U.S. alone, according to the USDA. However, climate change appears to be putting pressure on the industry to quickly change its tapping schedule, as the 2023 maple syrup season is kicking off about a month earlier than it should.

"We usually make syrup in March and April up here in Northeast Vermont," Caitlin Ackermann, the founder of Ackermann Maple Farm, told Food & Wine. "This year is the earliest we've made syrup since 2013."

To understand what's going on, one must first understand the art of maple syrup making, and just how intertwined it is with the weather, in the first place. 

As you likely know, maple syrup is made from the sap of maple trees. That sap is typically collected in the late winter to early spring, when freezing nights and warmer days causes the sap to flow. The collected sap is then boiled down and bottled as maple syrup. 

However, this year, maple syrup makers were forced to scramble their taps as the warmer weather that spread over much of New England and parts of Canada caused the sap to run way ahead of schedule. That includes Massachusetts, where temperatures peaked above 60°F in February, nearly doubling its typical average.

"In order to make maple syrup, we need freezing temps at night and thawing temps during the day." Ackermann said, "If we don't get that, the sap doesn't flow — warm winters mean less freezing at night and less syrup made."

While an early harvest can yield more syrup for businesses, experts warn that warmer winters can impact the longevity of Maple trees in the long term. 

"All of these changing weather patterns and weather extremes are having impacts on the tree health," Jason Lilley, from the University of Maine's Cooperative Extension, explained to WBUR. "And we as a research community are trying to figure out how that impacts the long-term viability of the individual trees but also the industry."

Though, one study published in a 2019 issue of Forest Ecology and Management is already putting out a strong prediction for what's to come for U.S. maple syrup producers within the century.

"We found that projected tapping season midpoints showed a clear trend toward earlier timing by the end of the century for all sites, with the midpoint of the tapping season being about one month earlier by the end of the century compared to the historical period for all sites," the authors explained. And not only do they say the tapping season will shift, but so too will the sugar content in the sap, forcing producers to boil their product for longer, thus producing lower yields. "With respect to sap sugar concentration, future projections showed a clear trend toward lower and more variable sugar content by the end of the century." 

With climate changes continuing to impact the food supply, producers must adapt and plan for solutions. Though Ackermann believes people likely won't see major changes in syrup production in this lifetime, it doesn't give her much solace. 

"Our biggest question is — are we building businesses to hand down to our kids, just to have the weather change too much for them to harvest enough syrup to make a living," she said. "I guess only time will tell."

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