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Understanding The Changing Climate and Maple Syrup

While the production of maple syrup may look as simple and idyllic as tapping a tree, collecting sap and boiling it into syrup, the process if far more involved. Sap production is dependent upon the weather, and the changing climate is changing weather patterns.

The golden, pure Vermont maple syrup that the world pours over pancakes, crepes, and pofferties flows from wild grown maple trees unique to the northeast landscape of the United States and eastern Canada. Sugar makers have been tending to these forests for centuries, harvesting sap to boil into maple syrup. This crop is not only a sweet ingredient, but also a way of life with significant economic impact on communities.

Climate change has raised ocean levels, intensified storm surges, and increased the planet’s temperature year by year. Here in Vermont, Vermont’s Department of Health reports that “Vermont has been getting warmer and wetter” with temperatures rising, on average, 2 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer and 4 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter. These climate changes directly affect maple syrup because of how sap production works.

Sap productions’ success is dependent upon a narrow period that yields specific temperatures. Favorable conditions for sap flow are when the days see temperatures above freezing with the nights falling below. It’s reasonable to be concerned about climate change’s temperamental course to warm the planet. but the sensationalized “shortage of maple syrup” stories that followed the 2021 season are anything but a buzzworthy headline. While we examine the changes, and adjust per the weather’s course, we are also able to act.

Threats of climate change on production yields can be eased with technology. Employing vacuum dynamics, sugar makers can extend the flow of their season. This is because the influence of pressure is a function of sap flow. Changes in temperature generate sap flow by causing pressure to develop in the tree. If we don’t have ideal temperature changes the tree pressure is very low and sap barely flows. By applying vacuum technology, we are essentially changing the atmospheric pressure at the tap, allowing a more favorable environment for the sap to run. The vacuum can’t make sap run when it wouldn’t normally, but it can help extend the run. This technology won’t eliminate climate change’s affects on our livelihood totally, but it does ease any volatile shifts in temperature’s direct effect on sap flow.

Hope remains high that the diversity maintained in sugarbushes can also mitigate some of the impacts of climate change more generally. Continuous forest cover is considered crucial to alleviating the effects of changing climate (reducing erosion, maintain water quality, and moderating storm runoff). Responsible management of these forests can be a significant factor in creating climate resilience.

“Sustainability is ingrained in what we do,” David Marvin, founder of Butternut Mountain Farm says. It’s by leaving more than what we take that defines good stewardship of the land and affords us optimism for the future.

Emma Marvin, Butternut Mountain Farm’s second-generation owner, elaborates on this point, saying, “Maple syrup comes from trees. Trees sequester carbon. The simple act of harvesting maple sap and creating maple syrup creates an economic reason for stewardship of some of our most valuable carbon sinks – the northern forests of North America. It’s easy to feel good about that – and it’s one of the many reasons I’m grateful to be able to do what I get to do every day.” Butternut Mountain Farm has always operated under the philosophy of sustainability and good stewardship.

This is why we remain hopeful that maple syrup production and sugar makers can not only continue to thrive, but act as a part of the defense against climate change stresses.

Climate change predictions are ever evolving, and on varied time scales. Butternut Mountain Farm’s forestry crew and the neighboring sugar makers with whom we work have always and will continue to be thoughtful stewards to the land so that our environment, production and communities can thrive.