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Hilltown Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, March 22, 2012

Maple Fest this weekend: As climate changes, sap flows earlier

HILLTOWNS — The Helderberg Maple Festival approaches, but this year’s mild winter made the sap season unpredictable for some local farmers. At the same time, Brian Chabot, a Cornell professor, says some have predicted nearly two-thirds of New York’s sugar maple trees will die by the end of the century.

And, because of climate change, the time to tap trees is steadily coming earlier.

This Sunday, March 25, the Kiwanis Club of the Helderbergs will hold its annual pancake brunch, featuring tours of local sugar bushes.

The event, traditionally held on Palm Sunday, was scheduled earlier this year because of the mild winter’s effect on maple trees.

Chabot, an ecology professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, has been working with the school’s maple program to increase the productivity of the maple syrup industry in New York State, while studying the effect of climate change on the industry. He was also the lead author on the maple-sugar related sections in the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority’s ClimAID report, a 600-page document that was released last fall and models climate change in New York State for the next half-century.

“I was initially interested in climate change and its impacts on the maple species because it is a cold-loving species, and it prefers northern environments, and there were people who projected the tree would disappear from New York State by the end of this century,” Chabot told The Enterprise on Tuesday. “The production of sap and maple sugar is a very temperature-sensitive process, and it requires certain frequencies of freezing and thawing conditions, and those have also been projected to disappear. That struck me as a pretty dramatic change, being that sugar maple is the most common species in our forest.”

Chabot went on to describe the natural process that allows sugarhouses to collect their chief ingredient.

“Sap is water plus dissolved sugar and minerals,” he began. “What happens is, the tree freezes, and that pulls water into the tree. Then, when the tree thaws, that frozen water in the tree expands, and it’s the pressure from the expansion of the water, plus the small amount of gravitational pressure coming from the water column above the [tap] hole, that cause the sap to flow.”

He went on, “In order for the sap pressure to develop, it requires the tree to freeze and then thaw, and this happens any time of the year that those conditions apply,” including parts of spring, fall, and winter.

“In the past, the highest frequency of these freezing and thawing days have been in late winter or early spring,” he said. “So, in the past, March has been the best month in terms of the volume of the sap.”

But that is changing with the climate, Chabot said.

According to the ClimAID report, less than 1 percent of New York’s maple trees are used for syrup production, while Vermont uses about 2 percent. The report also predicts that the number of maple sugar trees that are able to survive in New York will decrease by about 63 percent by the end of the century.

“The modeling that we’ve done shows that the period during the year with the highest number of days with freezing-and-thawing conditions will move to earlier in the year,” said Chabot. Within the last 30 years, he said, the window for tapping the maple trees for optimum sap flow has moved a week earlier. “So, in the next 30 years, we expect it to move ahead another week.”

According to the ClimAID report, “Different parts of New York are likely to experience different impacts of climate warming on sugar production.” (See map.)

“We aren’t looking at an exponential change,” Chabot said Tuesday, “though the warming itself is occurring rapidly, so there’s a chance the change will be occurring faster as we move ahead. But our projections were just for a 100-year period, so, we’re simply looking at a progressive movement of the best time of year to collect sap moving from March into January.”

Local variability

When asked about the climate’s effect on maple-sugar operations on the Hill, local syrup makers gave varied responses.

“I’m cooking it right now as I’m talking to you, which doesn’t even make sense to me,” Randy Grippen told The Enterprise Wednesday.

Grippen, who owns Mountain Winds Farm on Canaday Hill Road in Berne, said that he tapped his trees on the same day as last year: Feb. 13. And, he has actually produced more syrup than he did last year, though he attributes that mostly to new equipment, more taps, and to changes in the sap itself.

“I think I’ve made more syrup out of less sap this year because the sugar content was much better,” Grippen said. “Last year, we were fighting with 1 percent sugar coming out of the trees. This year, we were up around 2, 2.5 percent, which obviously doesn’t take as much sap to make the syrup.”

But, in 2010, he began tapping his trees on Feb. 21, more than a week later than these past two years.

“My personal thought was that the early warm spell we had in February got the sap running up the trees,” Grippen said. “But nobody tapped, and the sugar in the trees was already getting sucked into the water, and, by the time everyone tapped their trees, the sugar content was higher because the sugar had already been up and down the trees a few days. I’m not an expert, but that was one thought I had.”

Brian Whipple, who runs Malachi Farms on Route 156 in Knox, has been making syrup for about 13 years.

“The syrup business is a fickle kind of thing; you never know what to expect,” Whipple said this Tuesday. “Normally, we’d be well into the sap season right now. But, the way I see it, it’s all over.”

He estimated that, this year, the sap began to run two or three weeks ahead of schedule.

“I probably could have tapped a little earlier,” he said. “This year, I ended up with about 70 gallons. I always shoot for 100, but that’s in a good year. So, you might say this was a less-than-average year.”

But, he said he would not likely tap his trees any earlier next year.

“It doesn’t fit my schedule to go any earlier,” Whipple said. “I’ll tell you this though, we did a little experiment where we tapped one tree early and, when we tried collecting the sap, it was not running. So, it doesn’t necessarily pay to tap early. We heard a lot of people were tapping around the first of February — late January even — but I don’t think that was necessarily the right thing to do.”

Looking ahead

One concern, Chabot said, is the late occurrence of colder weather.

“At the end of winter, let’s say we still have a chance of late snow,” he said. “If the trees break bud, and there’s a drop of temperature, it could damage the trees. So, we do have some issues, but we actually have some of those problems every year, and it’s in the nature of this particular industry. It’s very weather-dependent, and there’s a lot of variation in what we think is normal.”

But, in the end, he thinks sugarhouses will survive if they make necessary adjustments.

“We won’t see a destruction of the industry,” Chabot concluded. “If producers don’t start tapping sooner than they typically would like to, then they may see a drop of production. But, overall, we see the ability of the industry to maintain production over the course of this century.”


This Sunday’s event is an all-you-can-eat breakfast and brunch, accompanied by real maple syrup donated by three local maple-syrup producers: Mountain Winds Farm on Canaday Hill Road in Berne; the Whipple’s Malachi Farms on Route 156; and the Lounsbury Farm on Cross Road in Berne. (See related letter to the editor.)

The cost for the pancake breakfast and brunch is $8 for adults, $4 for children under 12, and children under 5 eat for free. For more information about the event, call 872-1895 or visit www.Hilltowns.org for information about all the events scheduled for the day.

By Zach Simeone

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