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Maple Month in a warm winter: How climate change is reshaping NH's syrup season

Syrup at Monadnock Sugar House in Jaffrey
Syrup jars fill a window at Monadnock Sugar House in Jaffrey, N.H.
Steve Roberge
Syrup jars fill a window at Monadnock Sugar House in Jaffrey

Sugar houses across New Hampshire are getting ready to open their doors to visitors for the state’s annual Maple Weekend, a celebration of locally produced maple syrup.

But many producers say the festivities are tinged with anxiety this year, as declining snow cover and record warmth have thrown the normal rhythms of sap season out of whack.

Scott Brooks, owner of Brooks Family Sugar House in Freedom, has been making maple syrup since 1978. He will partake in the festivities this weekend as he does every year: offering pancakes, syrup samples, and maple cream. Normally, he would also boil sap to show people how maple syrup is made, but this year, for the first time, he's not sure he will.

“It's going to be a question of whether we have sap to boil,” he said.

At this point in the winter, with no snow cover on his land and higher-than-usual temperatures, it’s difficult to keep the sap running.

Brooks is one of many local sugar makers who say they’ve seen their production cycle shift earlier in recent years and the quality of their syrup change due to increasingly warm winters linked to climate change. This year's winter, the warmest in New Hampshire history, has been particularly challenging.

Brooks tapped his trees at the end of January and started boiling sap on Feb. 10, the earliest date he has ever begun sugar making. He said the traditional production cycle used to start with tapping trees around Presidents Day — in mid-February — and beginning to boil around the first week in March. March, which is designated Maple Month in New Hampshire, was once the peak of the sugar making season, but it now marks the end of production for many local sugar makers.

Brooks and other producers have also encountered lower-than-average sugar content in their sap this season. Jeff Babel, owner of Babel’s Sugar Shack in Mason, said normally his sap would be about 2% sugar, but the crop has been averaging about 1.6% sugar this season.

“It's not the same quality that I would have selling as table grade,” he said. Babel thinks his syrup yield this year will only be half of last year's.

Brooks said that when the sugar content is low, it takes more gallons of sap to make syrup, which also cuts into yields.

Brian Folsom, owner of Folsom Sugar House in Chester, also said his yield is down and his season began early this year, around the start of February — changes that Folsom, who is 70 and grew up in Salem, attributes to the increasingly mild winters.

“Compared to when I was a kid, these aren't winters,” said Folsom.

The Science Behind Syrup and Climate Change

Popular wisdom around maple syrup production says that sugar makers need “warm days and cold nights,” and the science backs this up: A cycle of freezes and thaws help the sap run down the trees and into the syrup taps. However these conditions have grown increasingly rare and irregular, especially for producers in the southern part of the state.

Researchers at the Acer Climate and Socio-Ecological Research Network (ACERnet) have found that the climate will impact maple syrup production primarily in four categories: the availability of trees to tap; tree health; tapping season characteristics; and sap quality and quantity. Their work noted that climate models predict that tapping season will continue to move earlier and last shorter across the US, with the season starting 15 to 30 days earlier by the end of the century. In many places, that shift is well underway.

In recent decades, new technologies such as vacuum tubing have helped improve overall sap yields, “hiding any deleterious effects of a shorter or more variable season,” the researchers found. However, many smaller producers who use traditional methods have been unable to avoid the difficulties associated with tapping earlier.

“The warmer it is, the quicker that those tap holes can start to seal up over time,” said Steve Roberge, a state specialist for the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension and hobbyist sugar maker.

Roberge said even as the climate changes, maple syrup will still be able to be produced here — the process just might look different. He emphasized that producers should be ready to tap whenever the conditions are right, regardless of the date. He noted that maple syrup is produced in warmer states than New Hampshire, as far south as North Carolina.

It’s not just warmer winter that is putting syrup season at risk: Weather conditions year round impact syrup production. Roberge said that factors like excessive rain in the spring or drought conditions during the summer can also be stressors on sugar maples and affect their sap production. As the state is predicted both to be more susceptible to short term drought and extreme precipitation in the future, sugar maples could face increasingly difficult conditions.

A stronger season in the North Country

Not all sugar houses across the state say they are experiencing a tricky year. In the North Country, where average temperatures are cooler and there is usually more snowfall, production has been more stable.

Dave Fuller, who owns Fuller Sugar House in Jefferson, said that he expects a full crop this year. He has been making sugar for over 50 years and he said that even though he has seen winters warm, improved technology has helped his operation collect more sap. He has over 30,000 trees, which he tapped in December, in part because of the weather and in part so he could get to all of his trees. Vacuum technology can stay in trees longer than the traditional gravity-and-bucket method, which typically only lasts around six weeks.

Fuller is almost 70 and said the long days of sugar production are starting to weigh on him.

“I'm not sure this was the best decision in life, to pursue making maple syrup because it's so unpredictable. It’s agriculture,” he said. “But I've been around this for a while, and I'm still fascinated to think you can drill this tiny little hole in a tree and end up with something as wonderful as maple syrup.”

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