Climate change could wreak havoc on maple syrup industry

fgca General, Landowner

(KAWARTHA LAKES) It has been an unseasonably warm winter this year, which is giving some cause for concern for local maple syrup producers who wonder what the warmer weather will mean for their already unpredictable industry.

About 55 people were on hand for the recent annual general meeting of the Halibruton-Kawartha Maple Syrup Producer Association (HKMSPA) at the Buckhorn Community Centre. The group is a unit of the Ontario Maple Syrup Producer’s Association, and hosted agroforestry specialist Todd Leuty of the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs to speak about the impact of climate change on the maple syrup industry.

He told This Week that while researchers in Canada and the U.S. have been following the increase in temperature over the past few decades, it is still difficult to know what affect these changes will have on the maple syrup industry.

“The ecological balance in the forest is very interactive so it’s hard to predict what will happen.”

However he did add that in terms of the maple syrup industry, the effects can be seen as producers have been tapping their trees earlier and earlier every year.

“Fewer producers are tapping by the calendar every year,” he said, adding that they are also much more aware of the health of their trees.

According to The Maple Daily, a news site dedicated to maple syrup, sugar maple trees now release their sap about 8.2 days earlier in the year and stop producing it 11.4 days earlier, resulting in a total of about 10 per cent loss in the duration of the maple production season.

What is clear, Mr. Leuty said, is that over the next 50-100 years, the temperature changes will only increase more rapidly. And while that may seem like a long time, Mr. Leuty said, “for a sugar maple that’s not even half of the life of a tree, if it’s healthy.”

As far as this year’s maple syrup production goes, as with every year, you never can predict what kind of year it will be until it is done.

“But everyone hopes for a good year,” Mr. Leuty said.

“This year it should be better, there is lots of groundwater.”

Ideally, for maple syrup production, four to six weeks of freezing nights and thawing days are needed to encourage sap flow and result in a good season. If it is too warm at night production will suffer.

“A nice, gradual, gentle transition from winter to spring is perfect.”

Maple syrup producer Carolyn Moore, who has lived near Janetville on 17 acres with her husband Jim for 29 years, said they got into the business about 24 years ago.

“We were looking for ways to make a little extra money from the same acreage, so the bush was the obvious choice.”

She said the quantities of maple syrup they produce year-to-year vary depending on the weather, so they never know what to expect, but last year was a good one.

“Last year was the biggest production we’ve ever had,” she said.

So while she says that climate change does concern the couple, she added that it is very hard to measure because there are so many contributing factors. One year, they weren’t able to tap their trees until March 28, but for most years the tapping takes place between mid-February and mid-April, she said. The amount of syrup tapped can also vary from 0.6 L per tap on their worst year several years ago to 1.4 L per tap last year.

But in spite of the uncertainty of the business, Squirrel Creek Farm Ltd. owner Dave Brackenridge of Millbrook, who sells maple syrup producing equipment, said there has been a jump in his equipment sales.

“We’ve had more interest in the past three or four years because of government programs more than anything else,” he said adding that grant programs are encouraging producers to upgrade old equipment.

There is currently a debate as to whether forestry experts should be stepping in and taking action in the form of something like an assisted migration, moving trees to a more northern climate to protect them in a careful and controlled way, but like many other aspects of the industry, there is a lot of uncertainty.

“There’s a lot of speculation and guess work right now,” he said.

“We need to back up and look at weather data as far back as you can go to get an idea of what is really happening,” he added, which he says is happening right now in Canada and the U.S.