Temperature extremes create greater unpredictability in an industry that depends upon the weather.
When you’re married to the head of a maple trade association, as I am, life is sweet. Leftovers from the syrup-tasting contest at the annual meeting often end up in our fridge. And when the organization wanted to sell a new treat at the Eastern States Exposition, I helped taste-test a local candymaker’s chocolate cups filled with maple cream.
But let’s not sugarcoat things here. Making maple syrup depends entirely on a specific weather pattern, and as New England’s seasons become less and less predictable, climate change has become more than a casual conversation for my husband. It directly affects his livelihood and that of the 250 sugarmakers he works with through the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association.
This year the cycle of freezing nights and warm days that makes the sap flow started about a month earlier than normal in much of Massachusetts. Some maple producers tapped their trees early and made lots of great syrup weeks before they usually do. Then, when early-summer temperatures swept across the state at the beginning of March, some thought the season was over — only to have a cold spell and perfect sugaring weather return a few days later. Sugarmakers who stuck it out benefitted from this late run.
However, even if that freeze-thaw pattern persists for several more weeks, this maple season — with its extreme highs and lows — is likely to end early in some parts of the region for two major reasons. First, the March heat wave caused trees to bud early. Once a sugar maple’s buds begin to open, certain amino acids contained in the sap result in off-flavored syrup. In addition, as soon as a tree is tapped, it starts walling off the cells that have been cut open for the hole. Trees that were tapped weeks earlier than usual therefore will close up earlier than usual.
Spring weather is always fickle and these variables are part of every maple season. They don’t mean this has been a bad year. Sugarmakers who were prepared for the early spring and uncertain weather have made abundant and delicious syrup.
But in recent years, unexpected and extreme weather patterns have increased, making the maple season more volatile than it historically has been. As a result, syrup producers have had to adapt so that even short seasons can be productive. They are watching the weather more closely, preparing for the maple season earlier, and taking advantage of new tools and technology that allow them to make the most of the sap when it does run.
We’ve all noticed the changing climate. Gone are the “typical” winters that New England was once known for. They’ve been replaced with winter after winter that we call “weird,” as our seasons have become increasingly unpredictable. For most of us, it’s just small talk and the conversation drifts off. For sugarmakers, though, it’s an occupational hazard that makes an already challenging endeavor even more uncertain.