Maple syrup producers go with climate fluctuations flow

Published 5:54 pm Friday, April 7, 2023

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By Hannah Yang

A changing climate and severe weather can delay the start of the maple syrup season. How long depends where you are. Even in the same part of the state, producers’ seasons might be different — especially in southern Minnesota.

Recently in rural Waseca, Christa Wadekamper had been cooking down her raw sap for several hours by the time midday rolled around. 

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Wadekamper raises and grows her own food on her homestead, which she calls Barefoot Lane. Every spring, she taps the maple trees in her backyard and produces maple syrup to sell at markets. 

Wadekamper piles firewood and pours bucketfuls of sap into an evaporator every morning to keeps the temperature constant while the air smells sweet from the cooking. Steam rises as light filters through it from the new shelter built to keep wind out. After a couple hours, she’ll pour the syrup into glass bottles. 

“So for me, I don’t mind what the color is, it’s gonna taste delicious either way,” Wadekamper said. “Either way, the lighter syrup is your earlier syrup. So, early in the season, that stuff is gonna turn out to be lighter syrup. And then, as you get later on, it gets darker and darker. And, it’s still gonna be just as delicious.”

It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup, according to the Minnesota Maple Syrup Producers’ Association. Nothing is added to the sap, only the water that is evaporated to create syrup. 

From the shortening tapping season to decreased sap production and quality, some producers said spring conditions and warmer winter temperatures bring changes every year. But, syrup producers are also having to adapt to the changing climate using new technology and planting heartier maple trees. 

Several yards away from the sheltered cooking station, orange collection bags hang from spiles on the maple trees.

During tapping season ideally temperatures drop below freezing at night then warm back above during the day.

But on this day the bags are frozen solid and Wadekamper can’t collect the sap. She said it’s a weather dependent business. 

“So, if you move from winter to late spring really quick, your season’s gonna be really short. It changes every year,” she said. “Last year, it seemed to start really slow and it was over really quick, for me anyways.”

Same region, different season

The syruping business can be really unpredictable. This year some producers were able to start mid-March or even sooner in northern Minnesota. The same couldn’t be said for others who dealt with extreme weather events and fluctuating temperatures. 

Jerry Johnson of Worthington, a retired dentist and maple syrup producer, said on March 13 that he anticipated starting later that following week, but “probably be on snowshoes.”

“I put a couple of test taps out on maple trees and they’re just not doing anything,” Johnson said. “So, oh my gosh … there’s guys in southwest Minnesota [who] are tapping. They don’t have much snow. But north of here, I don’t think anybody’s hardly thinking about it, or dreaming about it.”

Johnson’s grove of silver maple trees is about 135 miles southwest of Wadekamper’s operation. He had been dealing with layers of ice and several feet of stubborn snow that refused to melt. By April 4, he said his season just finally started with his trees tapped. 

His season has begun progressively later over the last several years. This year Johnson hopes to be collecting sap and start cooking soon. But, the likelihood of a lot of syrup to sell this year seems unlikely. 

“Climate change really doesn’t affect the passion you have for something that you love so much,” he said. “Just trying to figure out a way to deal with the difficulties. Snow melting really slowly is kind of a perfect storm this year to keep us from getting [sap]. I hope we never have another year like this.”

An industry attuned to climate change

Increasing temperature fluctuations producing freezing and thawing cycles can reduce tree health and growth. Maple trees are often the first to bud during the spring and are especially vulnerable to a late season freeze. Warming temperatures can also increase the growth of microorganisms leading to premature clogging of the tap holes. 

Ryan Brubaker, a program forester for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and a maple syrup producer, said frequent changes in climate prompt producers to adapt to immediate and long-term needs. He said climate change means more variability of long-term weather patterns, and they can differ from region to region. 

“So really, syrup producers are concerned about the impacts of extreme weather events,” Brubaker said. “Wind and ice storms, and what those events may have on the health of their sugar bushes. The maple industry, they have to adapt to climate change.”

Brubaker that could mean using equipment such as vacuum systems to increase sap collection, and reverse osmosis machines that increase productivity and decrease the amount of wood used to cook syrup.

There are also sanitation practices that keep tap holes healthier and allow sap to flow longer.

It might also mean planting different types of native maple trees such as red maple that can also withstand warmer climates. 

But when it comes down to it predicting how a maple syrup producer’s season might go in the future, Brubaker said “it’s just like rolling dice.”

“These fluctuations affect us greatly,” he said. “We can’t play the long game where things kind of work out and get over the hump. It’s like you got three weeks, a month, to make this happen, and if things are going crazy in those three weeks, months, you gotta wait till next year. You got one shot at it.”

‘It’s a great bonding experience’

Despite the uncertainty, Christa Wadekamper looks forward to maple syrup season every spring. She has a routine down — get up in the morning with her coffee, take her kids to school, get the fire started and cook down the sap all day long. 

“And then, in the afternoon or evening, our family, we’ll all go around and collect all of the sap,” Wadekamper said. “I just pull the syrup off as it’s ready, bottle it. Maple syrup is pretty tame. It’s a great bonding experience. Get the kids out there, and all the family members. It’s so fun to sit here and chit chat all day long.”

It’s a tradition that can be passed from one generation to another Wadekamper said. She learned about harvesting maple syrup from her father Tim, who had been doing it for several decades. She doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon, and she’s teaching her children.