March is Maple Month in Massachusetts, which means it’s typically prime time for sugarhouses across the state to harvest sap and turn it into delicious syrup. But maple farmers say the weather is messing with syrup production as our winters get warmer and shorter. Is this New England tradition at risk? Cristina Quinn has this report.
Matfield Maple Farm in West Bridgewater has 800 trees, 1,100 taps and six miles of tubing, creating a super highway of sap. It’s the largest maple farm south of Boston and Rich Forbes has been producing maple syrup here for 25 years, but about seven years ago, he says he started noticing a marked difference in his maple sap flow.
“We were going through periods of frozen, periods of warmth and each one works against us,” Forbes said. “The trees stop. They think it’s winter or they think it’s spring.”
He says this stop-and-go behavior makes it much more challenging to predict how much syrup his farm will produce because New England winters are not as long and steady as they used to be. Many maple syrup producers have also noticed lower sugar content in their trees’ sap. If there’s lower sugar content per gallon, that means they need to harvest more sap to make a gallon of syrup.
“Everything is different now," Forbes said. "We have these periods of warm-cold extremes.”
While Forbes says the harvest usually evens out by the end of the season, he is one of many maple farmers across New England who say the erratic weather is wreaking havoc on production.
Tufts University ecologist Elizabeth Crone may know why. Crone has led research on the decrease of sugar content in maple trees. She says when plants and trees are stressed out, they drop more seeds.
“They'll invest more of their resources in producing seeds that can go hopefully to somewhere else where the environmental conditions are better and they'll use fewer of their resources for growing and surviving and defending themselves," she said.
Think of it as planning for the future — but at a cost to the maple syrup industry.
“What we found was that after years where trees produced a lot of seeds there was less sugar in the sap,” Crone said.
While Massachusetts is a smaller player in the world of maple syrup production compared to Vermont, it’s an important part of the winter tourism economy. It also provides another stream of income for farmers.
Forbes says he’s concerned that global warming will eventually force maple production out of New England.
“I think in the future it will move so far north — the maple belt — that it won’t exist," he said. "The belt has been moving for a couple hundred years steadily north. The future doesn’t look good unless we do something to slow it down. My fear is that it will disappear and become a thing of the past.”