Maple syrup: a sweet solution for farmers?

maple syrup bottles
Public Domain Wikimedia

Managing a sugar bush is a win-win situation for all involved.

An unexpected crop could become the future of farming in the northeastern United States. Maple syrup, that sweet favorite of lazy weekend breakfasts, is now seen as a potential agricultural savior for a number of reasons. Lela Nargi writes for Civil Eats,

"The burgeoning maple industry — valued at $140 million in 2017 — can also support the protection of intact, healthy forests, and a forest that lives to grow another day can provide increasingly critical carbon and other ecological benefits to our warming and de-diversifying earth."

When a forest can be turned into a productive sugar bush, there's a financial return for farmers, which discourages logging the land or selling it to developers. Money comes from the sale of syrup, as well as selling carbon credits in the offset market; should a farmer choose to do this, it can bring in as much as $100 per acre of bush.

Maintaining forest cover is more important than ever, as New England has been badly deforested over the past century and continues to lose around 65 acres every day. Nargi reports,

"The region is on track to lose an additional 1.2 million acres by 2060. Vermont, which produces 47 percent of U.S. maple syrup, is losing 1,500 acres of forest a year. New York, [which] produces 20 percent of the country’s syrup... has also seen a 1.4 percent decline from 2012 to 2017."

As farmers get out of other agricultural industries, such as wheat and dairy because the markets are too volatile and competitive, they must seek out alternatives. Maple fits well with growing interest in local, seasonal products and natural sweeteners, and sales have been booming in recent years.

Technological advances have taken sap collection far beyond the days of lugging metal buckets by hand. Now, vacuum pumps and miles of plastic tubing snake through sugar bushes, delivering the sap directly from trees to collection bins, which are then taken to an industrial-scale evaporator. Apparently these have been able to transcend the negative impacts of climate change thus far. In the words of Arnold Coombs, of Coombs Family Farms, "New techniques have helped us have good crops even with poor weather that would have been disastrous 30 years ago."

It's unknown how technology will be able to offset shrinking amounts of snow, however. I wrote about this in December, how an inadequate snow pack causes sugar maples to grow 40 percent slower than during a normally cold year, and makes them unable to recover. (Snow insulates trees, protecting them from frost damage.) This in turn affects sap production, so Coombs' optimism may be put to the test.

At least there are fairly stringent environmental standards for maple farmers, and a well-managed forest tends to be a healthier, more resilient one. Organic certification and Audubon Vermont overlap in some areas pertaining to bird habitat, mandating that there must be 25 percent diversity in tree types to allow for a variety of species. The standards cover many aspects of forest stewardship:

"[Organic standards] also establish how and how much to thin trees, what kind of equipment is too damaging to roll around them, and how to maintain woodland roads and paths. These provide 'ecological sustainability' in ensuring little to no damage to the surrounding environment."

While the expansion of the maple industry appears mostly positive, there is some concern over how industrialization – and the rise of 'Big Maple' – would affect it. The main worry cited in Civil Eats is how plastic tubing covering large distances would affect wildlife moving through the forest. Five years ago, The Nature Conservancy concluded that "wildlife habitat and financial values lined up more favorably with sugarbush than timber," so it stands to reason that wildlife would fare better with tubing for several weeks each year than not having a forest to inhabit.

It will be interesting to see what happens over the next few years. I suspect that climate change will have a much greater impact on farming of all kinds within a short time period, but investing in agricultural crops that leave forests intact is likely a wise move.

Maple syrup: a sweet solution for farmers?
Managing a sugar bush is a win-win situation for all involved.

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