Climate Change at Home: Maple sugarers learning to adapt as weather becomes more erratic

  • Students in a sustainable agriculture class at the Stockbridge School of Agriculture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst learn about maple sugaring from Howard Boyden at Boyden Brothers Maple in Conway. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Howard Boyden of Conway shows his evaporator to students in a sustainable agriculture class through the UMass Amherst’s Stockbridge School of Agriculture. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Howard Boyden of Conway cans a jug of maple syrup as he talks to students in a sustainable agriculture class through the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Stockbridge School of Agriculture. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Howard Boyden’s sugar house in Conway. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 11/12/2022 6:57:58 AM

While making his case for the removal of 164 trees in Wendell, National Grid arborist Ryan Kress told residents he is only interested in removing trees with a higher-than-average likelihood of failure. In fact, he said in September, experts predict weather changes will result in virtually no surviving sugar maples in America in 20 to 50 years.

This claim did not sit well with Dan Boyden, who said he taps trees, including five sugar maples tagged for removal, to boil down sap to make maple syrup to sell. He said each tap carries the potential of a quart of syrup each year, at $20 a pop. Boyden mentioned the town’s proud sugaring heritage and expressed skepticism over the prediction.

Other sugarers in the region also say they think it’s unlikely New England’s maple industry will evaporate — but they note that climate change is already forcing them to adapt to increasingly unpredictable seasons that are significantly changing this sweet, storied tradition.

“These kinds of things take a long time, and any kind of changes are going to be slow and maybe evident in 50 years,” said Tom McCrumm, who ran South Face Farm in Ashfield with his wife for 35 years, while noting that climate change and its effects are concerning and undeniable. “I have 40 years of sugaring records here and it’s obvious. People are tapping their trees earlier in the season.”

The maple industry depends on freezing cold nights and warmer days for sugarers to draw sap from maple trees. The fluctuation in temperature gives the trees greater internal pressure, which causes the sap to run if the tree is tapped. Sap, which visually resembles water, comes out of the tree at about 2½% sugar content, and maple syrup is then made by boiling the sap in an evaporator.

“The process of sugaring has changed because the weather is so inconsistent. A decade ago you could count on a gradual warmup in the spring,” said Winton Pitcoff, coordinator for the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association. “The reality now is the winters and springs are so inconsistent sometimes we get warmups in January.”

He said fickle weather hasn’t necessarily affected production volume, however. He described the most recent season as “solidly average.” Pitcoff said morale is quite high among Massachusetts sugarers, as people are steering toward maple syrup as society becomes more and more health conscious.

“We’re in good shape, for now,” he said. “It’s still a good climate for sugar maples.”

Conway resident Howard Boyden, the uncle of the younger Boyden who taps trees in Wendell, said he now starts tapping around Valentine’s Day, whereas he used to begin on March 15. The elder Boyden, who is also president of the North American Maple Syrup Council, has 3,500 taps on his property. He said the New England and Quebec maple industries will likely remain strong, though producers will have to stay creative.

“In West Virginia, I would be concerned, which I suspect that they are,” said the elder Boyden, who owns Boyden Brothers Maple with his wife, Jeanne. “Basically what we have to do is learn to adapt. You employ ways to get more tap from trees in a shorter amount of time.”

The industry’s outlook is decent enough that he recently hosted a group of students from a sustainable agriculture class at the Stockbridge School of Agriculture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst for a maple sugaring tutorial.

Paul Zononi of Paul’s Sugar House in Williamsburg has been sugaring “for 50-some-odd years” and said he grew up tapping trees from the first week of March to mid-April. By comparison, his farm is “now tapping the first week of February and we barely make it to April 1,” he said.

Zononi has also noticed his trees’ sap is not as sweet as it once was, at only about 1.7% sugar. He believes this is caused by droughts, which make leaves shrivel up and prevents them from powering the process of making sugar that is stored in the tree. He said the general rule of thumb for decades was that 40 gallons of sap would make 1 gallon of maple syrup. Now, that ratio is 60:1 due to the lower sugar content.

“I haven’t seen 40:1 in 10 years, probably,” said Zononi, who, like Boyden in Conway, maintains about 3,500 taps.

Higher water content means it takes longer to boil sap down to maple syrup. This equals more wood and more labor to make less product. Increased boiling times also result in darker syrups, which Zononi said have become increasingly popular among consumers over the years.

“When I started, you couldn’t give away dark syrup,” he recalled.

Zononi, who established Paul’s Sugar House in 1971, said darker syrups have more flavor and antioxidants.

Like Boyden, Zononi isn’t too worried about the maple industry collapsing. He thinks producers will go north if that is the only way to make syrup.

Deb Rocque, co-owner of Justamere Tree Farm in Worthington, said 2022 was a very good year, partially making up for 2021, which she said was her farm’s worst year. She feels the maple industry in southern New England is in trouble.

“I think our farm, optimistically, has about 20 more years to be viable,” she said.

Rocque has owned the farm with Kelly Auer and Kim Trust for three years. They maintain 5,500 taps and sell all types of maple and value-added products. Rocque said they plan to expand as much as they can to try to make as much syrup as possible.

“It’s the governments of the world that happen to figure this one out,” she said of climate change.

Pitcoff said unpredictable weather can also affect producers in indirect ways. He explained many sugarers have part- or full-time jobs on top of syrup producing, and funky changes in temperature can throw their days off-kilter.

He also mentioned that “the No. 1 buffer against climate change is trees” and forests that are actively managed by sugarers capture more carbon than forests that are left wild.

Climate Change at Home is sponsored by Whalen Insurance.


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