Neil’s Bigleaf Maple. RIGHT: McLeod walks along bigleaf maple trees at his Acme,
Washington-based maple sugaring operation. Photos by Devin Day
The industry may not disappear overnight, but without adaptation efforts and awareness, much like the sap runs dry each spring, the maple sugaring livelihood may soon begin to recede.
BY BRANDON WALKER
What would pancakes, waffles and French toast be if not for maple syrup? Like a tux without the bowtie. Or Burt without Ernie. However you pour it, that sweet, sticky substance that adorns our breakfast plates may be under siege.
Dr. Selena Ahmed, Montana State University Associate Professor of Sustainable Food Systems, says maple syrup is being adversely affected by our warming planet. “The locations that will have the maximum amount of maple sap flow are expected to shift northward by 400 [kilometers] … by 2100,” she said.
In addition to the northern migration of sugar maple sap flow, Ahmed—who’s part of the collaborative research group Acer Climate and Socio-Ecological Research Network, aka ACERnet—and the group believe the halfway mark of “sugaring season” will be accelerated by a month and the sugar content within sugar maple sap will decline by roughly 1 Brix, a widely utilized sucrose measurement, in the next 80 years. With reduced sugar content comes the need for greater quantities of sap to produce each gallon of maple syrup.
ACERnet reports that for every degree Celsius the average annual temperature increases in March, sap collection is accelerated by more than four days.
Ahmed and ACERnet say the sugaring season will vary in the future, but that maple production in Canada could be less affected. “The situation is not looking as good here in the United States,” Ahmed said. “We are expecting declines in syrup yield and higher frequencies of poor syrup production years across most of the U.S. range.”
The 10-year outlook for the maple syrup industry isn’t overly alarming, Ahmed noted, but as the planet’s temperature increases over a prolonged period of time, the effects become more profound. Fortunately, this doesn’t mean the end of maple syrup—Ahmed and ACERnet believe the industry can combat negative trends.
Revised management practices, some derived from indigenous methods, such as diversified forests—including tapping different species of maple trees—varying sap harvesting tactics, adapting to the shifting sugaring season, and creating new maple-based products for alternative revenue methods are practices Ahmed believes maple sugar producers should start embracing in order to stem the warming tide.
Neil McLeod of Neil’s Bigleaf Maple is part of an early wave of modern-day syrup producers when it comes to adopting new methods, specifically by tapping a different species of maple tree. His Acme, Washington maple syrup operation utilizes the bigleaf maple tree.
McLeod says many in the region refer to bigleaf maples as weeds. The tree’s reach is widespread, spanning from San Diego, into Canada, as far as Vancouver Island. Since little insight exists on harvesting sap from bigleaf maples, McLeod’s method has drawn interest from the world of academia—particularly the University of Oregon, Washington, and Washington State University.
“I’ve got universities getting grants to basically pick my brain to see how I do it,” he said.
In the four years that he has been operating commercially, McLeod has planted roughly 3,600 bigleaf maples to not only absorb carbon dioxide, but also to learn how the trees grow in varying environments as the climate continues to change.
McLeod hasn’t witnessed an economic impact due to the adverse effects of climate change and is raking in between $250 and $400 per gallon of syrup—he attributes this to the limited quantity of his unique syrup.
“You know everybody is worried about what it’s going to look like,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to shut me down.”
The industry may not disappear overnight, but without adaptation efforts, similar to McLeod’s, and awareness with regard to the warming of the planet, much like the sap runs dry each spring, profits and the maple sugaring livelihood may soon begin to recede.
Brandon Walker is a New England-based writer who was previously part of the Outlaw Partners staff. He was born and raised in Vermont and has a strong passion for athletics and the environment.