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Sugar slump; Maple tree tappers suspect global warming is shortening the season.

Byline: Karen Nugent

There's no need to worry about syrup for your pancakes just yet.

But there is increasing concern among maple sugar producers in Massachusetts and other New England states about the effects of a warming climate on maple trees - and the possibility that, eventually, it just won't pay to tap those trees.

A recent study by the Proctor Maple Research Center at the University of Vermont found that the four- to-six-week sugaring season - which already can range from mid-February through April - has become three days shorter over the last four decades.

The change is attributed by some to a warming climate caused by the release of greenhouse gases through the burning of fossil fuels, also called global warming.

Tom McCrumm, executive director of the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association, said commercial producers and sugarhouse owners are worried.

"We're concerned because there are climate changes that will affect the temperature patterns, which have a direct impact on our industry," he said. "There are big extremes, and it's a concern that people need to be educated about, because 100 years from now, there may no longer be a maple sugar industry in New England."

Sap flow is dictated by cold nights followed by warm days, and in Massachusetts, the sugar season is generally the month of March.

According to the Massachusetts maple association, when the nighttime temperature drops below freezing (32 degrees Fahrenheit), or ideally, below 20 degrees Fahrenheit, trees suck up water from the soil. The water is converted into sap within the tree.

Then, as temperatures warm up during the day, the sap expands and runs out of holes bored into the trees by sugarers.

If there is a long, slow freezing period, trees suck up a lot of sap.

Problems occur when the temperature stops dropping below freezing at night, because the trees start to produce buds. Once that happens, the sap starts to taste bitter and the season ends.

While sap flow is stimulated by those fluctuations in late winter and early spring temperatures, this year's abnormally warm January followed by a cold March had some local producers scratching their heads.

"A 70-degree day in January is a worrisome thing," said Jim Burns of Harvard, who runs Harvard Maple Producers from his Ayer Road home.

Mr. Burns, a Vermont native, said this year's season started about three weeks later than usual.

Mark D. Ewen, who has been sugaring at his family's Sleepy Hollow Sugar House in Lunenburg for 40 years, agreed.

Those warm January days did, in fact, put the trees into an early bud cycle, resulting in about one-half of the expected syrup yield this year, he said.

"This is not an average year - it seems like a strange spring," Mr. Ewen said. "These changes, like this late sugar season, could be effects of climate changes."

Roger A. Backman, who is in charge of the sugaring program at the Massachusetts Audubon Society's Drumlin Farm Sanctuary in Lincoln, is convinced that global warming is impacting syrup production.

"The climate is definitely warming, and making things much worse. This year, the season was shorter then ever. We had that warm weather in January, and then a week or 10 days in March when it went well below freezing," he said. "I attribute it to a warming climate."

Mr. Backman, who also taps trees at two other areas in Lincoln, said his yield, while small in a good year, was particularly low: from 20 to 24 gallons on average to 16 gallons this year.

The United States, which produced 80 percent of the world's maple syrup 50 years ago, now produces less than 20 percent, according to the research at UVM's Proctor center

The supply has moved north, to Canada, which has jumped from producing 20 percent to 80 percent. The researchers believe the climate in Quebec has warmed to what used to be the typical climate in Vermont, which is the top U.S. producer.

Last year, Massachusetts was the 10th U.S. producer; Vermont was the highest, followed by Maine, New York, Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, said Mr. McCrumm of the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association. But he noted that the lineup and amounts produced vary from year to year.

Canada produced 7.4 million gallons last year, he said, with Quebec alone producing 6.8 million gallons. The United States produced 1.45 million gallons, with 874,000 gallons coming from New England.

Mr. Ewen said he is not overly concerned about a shortening season, as he sugars mostly as a hobby, although his maple products are for sale.

"It's so irregular, you can't depend on it," he said.

* Maple syrup and the Massachusetts economy

* The state is the 6th biggest U.S. producer of maple syrup

* Maple sugaring employs more than 1000 farm workers.

* Massachusetts has more than 350 maple producers; more than 80% are west of Interstate 91.

* Annual production is about 50,000 gallons, worth more than $2 million to farmers.

* Sugaring is one of the few tourist destination events to occur during mud season in March and April; 60,000 visitors spend more than $1 million during sugaring season.

* An active Massachusetts maple industry preserves more than 8,000 acres of open space.

* Maple sugaring income allows many dairy farms to stay in operation. Almost all of the Massachusetts maple syrup crop is sold within the state.

* Massachusetts is 6th in the United States in terms of national production.

Source: Massachusetts Maple Producers Association

ART: PHOTOS

CUTLINE: (1) Mark D. Ewen stands with his son Tyler. The Ewens own Sleepy Hollow Sugar House in Lunenburg. (2) Maple sugar maker Mark Ewen is silhouetted by a window as steam from boiling sap sends up a haze inside Sleepy Hollow Sugar House. (3) The sugarhouse has a variety of pure maple syrup for sale.

ED COLLIER PHOTOS

ED COLLIER
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Title Annotation:LOCAL NEWS
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Apr 11, 2007
Words:977
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