Maple syrup farmers are facing yet another battle against Canadian weather. While some of us pray for mild winters, the farmers do the opposite—production of the sweet stuff depends on it.
While some producers like Jamie Fortune of Fortune Farms and Temple’s Sugar Bush are adapting their strategies to meet regular production levels, other farmers cannot produce as much syrup because of warmer temperatures.
“In the last couple of years, there hasn’t been the biggest production because of warm weather,” says Frank Haveman, owner of Bata Maple Sugarbush. “The quality of syrup has been excellent, but the yield isn’t as high.”
The warmer weather didn’t change the production schedule for Fortune Farms.
“Once you tap a tree, the operation starts,” says Fortune. “Starting early can risk the end of the yield.” Tapping too early can either risk sap holes healing or bacteria being introduced into the system. This is why some farmers stick to a set schedule.
On the other hand, John Williams, Executive Director of the Ontario Maple Syrup Producer’s Association and owner of William’s Farm in Midland, Ont., started the season two weeks earlier than usual. When it comes to producing syrup, there is never one right way.
For the 2023 season, warmer temperatures have been the culprit of lower sugar content. “We need cold temperatures to convert starch—produced in the warmer seasons—into sugar,” says Fortune. Without temperatures consistently hitting below freezing, Fortune Farms will have to work harder to extract more sap to produce healthy levels of sugar.
And with so many regional differences in weather, William says maple syrup farmers across the province must adjust because “sugar content varies even between bushes.”
Here’s where resilience comes into play: Fortune Farms is using vacuums to help regulate production and draw out more sap from trees.
For cottagers and small-scale producers, who hang buckets on trees each year, Fortune recommends following traditional tapping schedules. “Sap holes exposed to oxygen will seal up, shortening the season,” he says.
Temperature is just one challenge—many farmers are still recovering from the derecho storm in May 2022. Among the wreckage was a loss of maple trees. “We lost 200 big trees, from 100 to 300 years old. They all fell on the pipeline system. So we had to reestablish the woodlot,” says Jamie.
“The closer you were to the derecho path, the greater the loss in the sugar bush,” Williams says. “Many farms lost a third of their trees and around 30 members of the Ontario Maple Syrup Producer’s Association were severely affected.”
In spite of recovery efforts, it will still take four to eight years for a tree to reach a tappable diameter of at least 10 inches, yielding one litre of syrup.
“Weather will always be a big concern. It’s difficult because you don’t know when the storms are coming,” says Jamie.
Being an outdoor operation, Fortune Farms is always on the lookout to prevent further damage. “We planted a maple forest to increase our base production and encourage growth when big trees go down,” he says. “The key is having a forest management strategy.”
Relying on production and weather trends will only solve one part of the puzzle. As Fortune puts it, “this year won’t dictate future years.” The maple syrup industry constantly evolves and innovates to overcome hurdles and deliver the liquid gold Canadians can’t get enough of.
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