Though maple syrup production dipped this year, experts and producers aren’t worried

Different grades of maple syrup from different sap runs sit on a window sill at the End 'o ' Lane Maple sugar house in Jericho on Saturday.
Different grades of maple syrup from different sap runs sit on a window sill at the End ‘o’ Lane Maple sugar house in Jericho. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Sugar-makers Arnie Piper and George Cook had two very different seasons. 

Piper’s Umbrella Hill Maple, a 10,000-tap operation that he co-owns, had its worst season on record. Cook and his wife Dorothy’s 175-tap farm had its best. Their properties are only 6 miles apart, both in Hyde Park.

“People ask me how my season was and I say, ‘Relaxing.’ That’s not what you want to say,” said Piper.

“I cannot complain at all. I feel very fortunate,” said Cook. “The weather cooperated, the trees cooperated and we were able to take advantage of the runs.”

The two starkly different experiences are the perfect microcosm for a roller-coaster sugaring season.

That is exactly what Mark Isselhardt, University of Vermont Extension maple specialist, means when describing this year’s sugaring season as “microclimate dependent.” In general, northern farmers were hit harder than their southern counterparts due to temperature differences. But Cook’s and Piper’s situations typify the erratic nature of turning sap into syrup.

Both producers put out taps and boiled the earliest they ever had. But Piper’s taps dried up within the week, while Cook’s kept flowing.

After two boils on Feb. 17 and 20, Piper wouldn’t see another until March 20. His taps froze up because of a drop in temperature and a snowstorm, causing him to be out longer than the usual week in between boils. At that point, half the season had gone by.

Cook, on the other hand, boiled 20 times, the most he ever had and higher than the typical 15 boils per season. He harvested 65 gallons of syrup, 10 gallons more than the previous year, and got an efficient 0.37 gallons of syrup per tap — 13.5% higher than Piper’s yield. 

The biggest difference, despite size, in the two sugarbushes is elevation. Piper’s sits at around 1,400 feet above sea level while Cook’s is roughly 750 feet. 

Cook’s also faces southwest and sees sun in the early morning through the evening. After the two friends compared notes, Piper estimated that Cook had three to four more hours of sap collection each day because of the small degree of difference between the two locations.

“The temperature was off almost every day by a couple of degrees for us,” said Piper. “If it had been something like three degrees warmer six hours earlier, we would have had a good run. It’s a couple of degrees that will kill you.”

Mark Isselhardt, University of Vermont Extension maple specialist. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

‘Challenging to compare’

In Vermont, 2023 maple syrup production totaled 2.05 million gallons this year, a 20% drop from the previous season, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. But fear not, pancake lovers; the decline comes after a record-breaking 2022 that now appears to be more of an outlier than the start of a trend.

“It’s really challenging to just compare it to one year unless that year you’re comparing to happens to be average, which last year was not,” said Isselhardt, the UVM Extension maple specialist.

Compared to the 2021 season, 2023 marked a 300,000-gallon increase in production. But compared to the five year averages, he said, this year’s yield is just 2.5% more. 

Those numbers “seem pretty typical in an industry that is prone to quite a bit of variability,” he said. “It doesn’t take a whole lot of sap flow days that just don’t present themselves because of the weather and then have people be struggling.”

In a standard six-to-eight-week season, producers could make upward of 20% of their crop in only a few days if they get a plentiful sap flow from their maple trees. But conditions have to be “really right,” and a few degrees might be the difference between a successful year or a dry one. 

Last year had a favorable stretch of warm weather throughout the season that kept the sap flowing, leading to a historic crop. But this year featured a historically warm January, followed by a cool stretch February through March.

Like Piper, many producers reported their earliest harvests and boils on record, but the taps dried up soon after the cold weather set in. By the time April rolled around, it got too warm too fast, and many sugarers ran out of time to reach their targets, according to Isselhardt.

Mark Isselhardt
Mark Isselhardt is framed by an evaporator as he explains some of the work going on at the Proctor Maple Research Center in Underhilll in 2019. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Future remains unpredictable

The variability, even within a town, makes it difficult to model future climate outcomes, particularly without consistent data collection. 

The survey used in previous years to collect maple syrup yield data was roughly four pages long, but a low response rate and a growing industry caused the U.S. Department of Agriculture to make changes before sending out this year’s form. 

Experts noticed production numbers across North America and Canada were being severely underreported, maybe in the ballpark of 25%, Isselhardt said. The discovery came after they compared over 10 years worth of USDA data and the numbers that syrup delivery companies reported they were moving over the same period.

Isselhardt and his UVM colleagues were enlisted to help make the process more producer-friendly. Alongside the USDA, they brought the survey length down to two pages. Though it will never be perfect, the recent data is a step in the right direction, he said, and hopefully will paint a more accurate picture over time.

Though he remained positive about the current state of Vermont’s maple syrup industry, which provides almost half the total maple syrup production in the United States, Isselhardt acknowledged several factors pose a threat to sugar-makers. 

A key one is storms that bring high wind and ice, which damage maple trees and thin out sugarbushes. 

The other major factor is the “existential threat of climate change,” but those worries are more difficult to grasp because of the peaks and valleys that define sugaring, he said. 

“It’s just too dangerous a game to try to say this will happen and that will be the effect,” he said. “It’s really hard to characterize, which makes the work of predicting and modeling how future climates might impact (the industry) really, really challenging.”

Isselhardt also said that worldwide demand for maple syrup has been increasing as consumers desire more natural products. The main way producers have kept up is with more advanced technology, which allows them to get a better vacuum seal on the tree tap to maximize the extraction potential of any given tree. Over the last 25 years, yields have actually increased, he said.

“There’s way more people in the world that have never had maple than have, so the opportunities are there when they get a taste,” he said.

Piper, also vice chair of the Vermont Sugar Makers Association, remained upbeat about the industry’s past season and future prospects.

“I think that if you’re in agriculture, not just sugar, you have to be optimistic,” he said. “You have to think, ‘Hey, it’s always going to be a good hay season. It’s always gonna be a good sugar season.’ And when it doesn’t, then you just kind of figure out what to do next.”

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