I love maple syrup. Love it. Maple is, to me, second only to cinnamon when it comes to most amazing flavors in the world. Luckily for me, yesterday I happened to come across a advertisement for the New York State Maple Weekend- when is this weekend? Why this very weekend! Whatever plans I had today, I had to alter them to get my butt to a maple tree farm (or sugar bush). And that is just what I did. I went to Niese’s Maple Farm where I learned all about the production of maple syrup for the first time since I field-tripped to the sugar bush at Blandford Nature Center as an elementary school kid.
I was reminded how very special Sugar Maples (Acer saccharum) are and how lucky we are to have these beautiful trees in North America. Sugar Maples were first tapped for their sap by Native Americans and, of course, this practice was adopted by European settlers and is continued today- allowing us to enjoy pancakes and waffles for breakfast. Sugar Maples are one of the major and dominant tree species found throughout Northeastern US and Southeastern Canadian forests; but while they have adapted to our constant use as a sweetener source, they are not doing so well with other human-caused changes.
Spiles over the years
The systems at Niese’s farm. The pale shows the old-fashion way of gravity collected sap, while the plastic tubing is attached to a vacuum to speed up the process. The Nieses use a combination of the methods.
During the informative tour provided by Niese’s staff, I asked about the trees- how do they withstand the constant tapping, year after year? It turns out that farmers can only take about 10% of the sap for syrup production without killing the tree, and the syrup season is pretty short. The trees start producing quality sap as soon as the temperatures get above freezing in the daytime, usually mid-February (our arctic vortex pushed this year back some…) and they stop once the nights get too warm- usually by the end of March. Once the temperatures are above 60 degrees during the day for more than 2-3 days, the maples will bud and the sap becomes bitter- aka, no more maple flavor.
Delicious in the making- vats of boiling sap.
As Mr. Niese- an old timer and 8th generation syrup producer- stood over his vats of boiling goodness, addressing the packed crowd, he jumped right into his fear of global warming. He cited the fact that maple farmers in Virginia are all but out of business with the increasing winter temperatures and warmer nights- lowering the sap quality. He also talked about how the Sugar Maples won’t survive several days of warmer temps- prolonged summers with days above 80 degrees spells death for Sugar Maples, turning the forests over to some other, more heat-tolerant tree. Some farmers have started tapping into Swamp Maples for syrup, but the quality is just not the same, as it takes something like 10-20 times the sap to get what you get with Sugar Maples.
With global warming and other threats (they don’t do so well with pollution overall), and the decline of maples and other hardwood trees, the price for Sugar Maple wood has increased. Logging companies offer millions to maple farmers thinking about retirement. Luckily, Niese’s has younger generations lining up to continue the tradition, but not all farms are so lucky. Unfortunately, it seems the deck is stacked against Sugar Maples- and their delicious sap- BUT with increased forest protections and actions to reduce CO2 emitting energy sources, we can at least slow the trend and hope the trees adapt- or at least hope they can survive in the northern part of their range (…the US better stay friendly with Canada).
Otherwise- what would life be like without maple syrup? So much less sweeter. Keeping maple syrup around is one damn good reason to fight harder for emissions reductions and adoption of renewable energies. Let’s do it for the sweet life, and the Sugar Maples.