Maple sugaring expected to decline drastically by century’s end

  • Kenneth “Sandy” Williams III stirs maple syrup at the Williams Farm Sugarhouse in Deerfield in February 2017. FILE PHOTO

  • Wood waits for sugaring season at the Boyden Bros. Sugarhouse in Conway. Owner Howard Boyden said he had a successful maple sugaring year this year.  FILE PHOTO

  • Tim Herzig bottles maple syrup at Williams Farm Sugarhouse in Deerfield. FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 6/21/2019 9:04:17 AM
Modified: 6/21/2019 9:04:06 AM

Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst say climate change will move peak maple syrup yield northward over the rest of this century, leaving Howard Boyden wondering whether his grandchildren or great-grandchildren will have a business to take over.

“I definitely think climate change is happening — it’s warmer overall,” Boyden, owner of Boyden Brothers Maple in Conway, said.  

Boyden said 50 years ago, when he started sugaring with his grandfather, they would begin March 15. Now, he said, there are years he is sugaring in mid-February, and some of the maple farmers he knows have started in January some years.

“I listened to a speaker in New England who said we are going to have longer springs,” he said. “That actually means that before it gets bad, it actually might get better for us and extend the maple syrup season.”

Boyden, 60, said he believes climate change will happen slowly and steadily. He said he isn’t worried about what will happen in his or even his sons’ lifetimes, but what will happen to the business when his grandchildren or great-grandchildren are ready to take over.

He wrapped up the 2019 season saying it was above average. He said he had 3,000 taps that produced 892 gallons of syrup, a little more than usual. He actually had fewer taps this year, but reached his gallon target, anyway.

The researchers from UMass and other colleges across the United States and Canada said one of New England’s cultural icons and key economic components will decline because of rising temperatures that will drastically change the tapping season and reduce the quality of the sap, according to their study. Days need to be warm and nights need to be cold for sap to run.

Researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey, as well as colleagues in New Hampshire, Virginia, Indiana, Montana and Canada joined in the study and found that by 2100, the region of maximum maple syrup flow will shift north by hundreds of miles into Canada.

Toni Lyn Morelli, a researcher, said the study is an important example of looking at the impacts of climate change on culture and livelihoods in the northeastern part of the United States. More than 80 people were involved in data collection. The research was funded by a two-year $150,000 grant from the U.S. Geological Survey.

The Pioneer Valley site studied was in the Harvest Forest in Petersham. There were also sites studied in Virginia, Indiana, New Hampshire and Quebec, Canada. Researchers project the sites in Virginia and Indiana will produce almost no syrup by the end of the century, while sites in Massachusetts are projected to produce only half as much as the average they produce now.

The report, “Finding the Sweet Spot: Shifting Optimal Climate for Maple Syrup Production in North America,” can be found at: bit.ly/2x1jcnR.

The study indicates that the maple syrup industry throughout most of New England, with the exception of Maine, is likely to drop by half by the end of the century because of changes in climate. And that, Boyden said, could affect many farmers throughout the region and beyond, many of whom depend on the income that supplements the rest of their farming activities.

The industry supports thousands of producers and provides permanent and seasonal income streams to not only local farmers, but indigenous communities, which have historically used maple as a food source and in trade, as well. 

The study published in the journal Forest Ecology and Management, is based on observations of sap at six locations over two to six years. The emphasis was on the climate-sensitive components of sugar content and sap flow.

Winton Pitcoff, coordinator for the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association, said he works with farmers who grow all types of crops, but maple is going to be a difficult one to deal with as the climate changes.

“There are going to be two parts to the change — mitigation and remediation,” Pitcoff said. “Maple sugarers have been doing the mitigation part for years, making sure they’re doing what they can to make sure they’re not making climate change worse.”

He said maple farmers have found ways to use less fuel, reduce their carbon footprint and more. He said they have been the vanguard of agriculture, reducing their impact of production.

Pitcoff said it’s the remediation they’ll have a problem with, because you can’t put maple trees in a greenhouse or protect them from the changing climate.

“You can’t put a maple tree in a controlled climate or protect it from the environment,” he said. 

Pitcoff said at first, farmers will find they will be sugaring at different times of the year than they are used to. Then, as the world gets closer to the year 2100, there will be more and more of an impact; possibly maple sugaring will disappear, along with the maples.

“It’s going to depend on how well we can adapt,” Boyden said.

He said right now, he is more concerned about invasive pests, like the Asian long-horned beetle, which could wipe out an entire population of maple trees. He said he is also concerned about invasive plant species that tend to choke out maples along forest borders.

“We’re just going to have to wait and see, and do the best we can,” Boyden said.




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