Warmer world could spell trouble for maple sugaring industry

01/25/07 12:00AM By John Dillon
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(Host) A warmer world may spell trouble for maple sugaring, Vermont's signature and sweetest industry.

Today, as part of our Changing Climate series, VPR's John Dillon talks with sugar makers and looks at new research that predicts an earlier and shorter sugaring season.

(Dillon) In Vermont, in early spring, the sound of dripping sap is nature's metronome.

(dripping sounds)

(Dillon) For the Morses of Calais and East Montpelier, the annual sap runs mark the rhythm of history as well.

Elliot Morse studies the Civil War. His family's ancestor, Joel Robinson, was a union soldier who fought at Gettysburg.

(Morse) "He was on the road from the Potomac to Gettysburg. And I have four original letters written. And in one, that time of the year that we sugar, he says, 'Oh, Pa, how many buckets you putting out this year?' So even then they didn't forget sugaring, no matter where they went."

(Dillon) Elliot and his brother Burr Morse are the seventh generation of Morses to tap maple trees in central Vermont. But Burr Morse says the sap runs have not been predictable in recent years.

(Morse) "What I've seen in last 20 years and maybe 25 to 30, is shorter nail-chewing seasons. Yes, you used to have bad seasons and good seasons. But there's been an overage of bad seasons in that period of time, and flukey weather seasons."

(Dillon) Sugar makers need below freezing nights and warmer days to make the sweet sap flow. The season's traditional start was Town Meeting Day in March. But in recent years, the sap run has started in February or even earlier.

On this January day, Morse is enjoying the first real blast of winter. The farm also has cross country ski trails, and there's finally enough snow for the eager skiers. Still, Morse is convinced that overall the weather is getting warmer - and that humans are at least partly to blame.

(Morse) "You know, it's easy to say on a day like today, 'well that's a crock.' It's cold out there, it's wicked cold out there. It's easy to say, 'yeah talk about global warming today.' But I'm over that. I'm over having a position because I'm an old Vermonter or having a position because I'm a political conservative or whatever. I see too much of the other side of cold days like this, which are multi days that are too warm."

(Dillon) The scientific research backs up Morse's observations in the sugarbush.

At the University of Vermont Proctor Maple Research Center in Underhill, scientists are looking at what the changing climate means for the maple industry.

(Perkins) "These were running quite well, several weeks ago when it was quite warm. They were producing very well."

(Dillon) Timothy Perkins is the director of the UVM Proctor center. He points out some mid-size maple trees with tubing and clear plastic containers. It's part of a study to determine the sugar content of early sap runs - since early runs are a clear consequence of climate change. The research may help sugar makers adapt to a warming world.

(Perkins) "Is it appropriate to tap early in hopes of catching those early runs, or it better to do as historically was done, to try to time the tapping to be just before the productive part of the season, the most productive part of the season?"

(Dillon) Perkins has also completed a separate study that uses 40 years of data to answer the big question about what's happening to maple sugaring. The answer, according to the center's web site, is that the season around the Northeast is starting significantly earlier. The study also found that the length of the season has decreased by about 10%.

Perkins has submitted the paper for publication. He says he can't comment to the media until his research is reviewed by fellow scientists, and then published in a journal.

But he says the big concern is that a shorter season could make sugaring less profitable for producers of all sizes.

(Perkins) "If the duration of the season changes and gets less, it will be less economical to make maple syrup at all scales. You're simply going to have a lower yield per tap and that lower yield is going to result in a lower economic gain for the producer."

(Prayer) "Help us keep our maple trees healthy, and our product in the forefront of the world market.."


(Dillon) The Vermont Sugar Makers Annual Meeting in Barre opened this week with a prayer for maple trees.

But the mood here is not pessimistic. Yes, sugar makers agree that the season is starting earlier. But many are adapting by tapping sooner and by using new, micro taps that keep the sap flowing for many weeks before the holes dry up.

In fact, the buzz here is about one sugar maker in Waterville who began in November and put up 1,300 gallons before the cold weather set in.

Jacques Couture is a Sugar maker from Westfield and former president of the association.

(Couture) "I'd say we tap a little earlier than we used to. We haven't gotten bold and tapped in January or December."

(Dillon) Couture predicts there's plenty of winter left before the sap runs. Yet he thinks humans have a role in climate change, and that people should reduce the carbon dioxide they put in the air.

(Couture) "As humankind we need to do all we can to not create emissions that might be furthering that along."

(Dillon) The long term climate predictions say that unless things change, in a century or two, Vermont's hardwood forests will no longer be dominated by maple, beech and birch. Instead, the forest type with be like Virginia, with oak, hickory and pine as the main species.

At the Morse Farm, Burr Morse is not ready to let that happen. Climate change for him is not a political issue, but one that hits the sugar maker in his heart.

(Morse) "A sugar maker is more qualified to pass judgment on it than anyone else, 'cause we're the ones who need just the perfect weather in the spring. Politics aside I think just on a practical level I am able to see and sign on to the idea that global warming is here."

(Dillon) Morse says he's made the personal decision to take a more public stand in fighting the problem of climate change.

For Vermont Public Radio, I'm John Dillon in East Montpelier.

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