Tuesday March 19, 2013 | 11:29 AM

This Sunday, March 24 you will need to plug in your GPS or if you are old school (personally, I’m horrible with maps) spread out the Maine road atlas and start out for some of the sweetest spots in Maine…sugarhouses! The Maine Maple Producers Association (MMPA)  is making it easy for you to meet the producers who have specialized in bringing maple syrup to your breakfast table, with this online listing of sugarhouses participating in the 30th Maine Maple Sunday. Tucked away in the southern town of Lyman you’ll find Brookridge Boilers and way up towards the northern tip of Maine, The Maple Moose. Whether you are a foodie wanting to experience “sugar on snow” or an outdoor enthusiast searching for a place to stretch your legs (on a tour the sugarbush) you’ll find it this weekend.

Sugar on Snow (warm syrup poured on clean snow or shaved or crushed ice) is served with sour pickles to cut the sweetness, and plain doughnuts, which can be used to dip into the syrup.

Maine Maple Sunday is a statewide Maine maple syrup regale held annually on the fourth Sunday in March. It was conceived during the winter of 1983, in Jack Steeves’ kitchen in Skowhegan, when the Maine Maple Association’s Board of Directors decided to launch a statewide open sugarhouse event that would promote and celebrate Maine’s long standing maple syrup culture. Maple producers in attendance included producers from Luce’s Maine Maple Syrup, Anson; Greene Maple Farm, Sebago; Jackson Mountain Farm, Temple; Maple Hill Farm, Farmington; Strawberry Hill Farm, Skowhegan, and Smith Maple Products in Skowhegan.

The 1983 Maine Maple Sunday was the first-in-the-nation event. A dozen Maine producers hosted open houses. “Come and see Maine maple syrup made,” they broadcast. Entertainment featured syrup making, sleigh rides, sap collecting tours, syrup tasting, pancake breakfasts, maple sundaes, and syrup selling. Acceptance by the public was unexpectedly high. Maple Hill Farm in Farmington counted 1500 visitors. Jillson Farm in Litchfield sold out of maple syrup early and, before the day had ended, out of all their preserved fruits and vegetables stored in the cellar, too.

Soon Maine Maple Sunday had become so popular that similar celebrations had sprung up all across the maple syrup world from Vermont to Pennsylvania and beyond. Many of the maple producing states had adopted Maine’s lead, affixing such names to competing events as Maple Syrup Weekend, Open House Weekend, All Things Maple Month, Maple Festival, and Maple Madness. Consequently, MMPA, to protect Maine’s unique descriptor from being duplicated by others, registered its trademark name, Maine Maple Sunday®.

In 2012, Maine Maple Sunday saw more than one hundred participating sugarhouses and hosted more than 50,000 visits despite a mid March spell of mid summer weather that forced many producers to preserve sap as a hedge and boil it late—but on Maine Maple Sunday.

How Climate Change is Impacting Maple Syrup Production

When I first came to Maine, back in 2001, there was snow on the ground on Maine Maple Sunday, and you couldn’t wait to get inside the sugarhouse by the sweet smelling wood fired evaporator. The past few years however, thanks to an unhealthy serving of climate change, I’ve found myself less motivated to wander into the sugarbush by late March, and more concentrated on spring plantings. Don’t get me wrong, there is always Maine made maple syrup in my pantry! **FYI, pure maple syrup is 100% natural and unrefined, the fake stuff “table syrup” contains less than 5% pure maple!

The maple sugaring season generally begins in mid-February in southern sugaring states (Ohio, Pennsylvania), in late February in New England (Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont…), and in Canada in late March. Flow of maple sap, which is boiled down to make syrup, is controlled by alternating freezing and thawing cycles that take place in late winter. Maple trees also rely on snowpack during this time to protect their roots from freezing. The annual run lasts from four to six weeks. For more information on sap flow visit this site

Research by the Proctor Maple Research Center at the University of Vermont indicates the sugaring season in New England on average starts 8.3 days earlier and ends 11.6 days earlier than it did 50 years ago. The transition from winter to summer is shorter, representing approximately 10% of the sugaring season in Northern New England.

“Climate change definitely will, and already has, had an effect on the maple syrup industry,” said Timothy Perkins, Ph.D., director of the Proctor Maple Research Center. “We are fortunate in that technological advances in sap collection have, so far, out-paced any losses we may have experienced due to the loss of season duration. In the long-term, we are unsure how climate change will impact the maple industry, or what our response might be, however we are looking at several novel approaches to collecting sap, with the hope that we will be able to reduce the impacts of climate change on maple syrup production for as long as possible.”

Northern Migration of Maple Trees

Research shows a long-term impact of climate change may create a shift in forest migration across the Northeast with maples and birches moving north and parts of New England developing an oak-pine forest system.

“In general, plants live where they do based upon the temperature and precipitation regime. Different plants have different tolerances for environmental conditions. These may affect lots of different aspects of a plant’s life strategy: germination, early establishment, growth, photosynthesis, respiration, etc., said Perkins. “If it gets warmer, and there is more or less precipitation in an area, then different assemblages of species than currently live in an area will have an increased competitive advantage over those that are there. Over this, the species more adapted to these new environmental (climatological) conditions will begin to out compete the plants that are already there, with the result that the plant communities in an area will shift over time as some species are replaced by others.”

“The ecological niche is changing already (longer growing season for example), but that does not mean the trees will die,” said Ivan J. Fernandez, distinguished Maine professor at the University of Maine’s School of Forest Resources and Climate Change Institute. “There are a lot of things that cause the actual tree species to change, like slower forest regeneration with natural processes of mortality (old trees) following by young trees coming in under that canopy. It is at that stage that new species may occupy the site if the niche has been altered. The maps you see show about 100 years ahead where species ranges will shift somewhat north. However, fire, wind, insects and disease can cause catastrophic changes that take place very quickly, and those we have less ability (a lot less) to predict. If there is a young healthy maple out back today, it very well may live its life out to the fullest. It may not be replaced, however, by another maple.”

Causes for Sugar Maple Decline: Extreme Weather, Acid Rain and Insect Threats

Fernandez believes the rate of climate change warrants special attention, and that if the trajectory stays the same, climate change will increase causing incidences of extreme weather such as drought and intense precipitation. Climate change is caused by human-related greenhouse gases (fossil fuels or non-renewable energy sources used by humans i.e. coal, oil, gas) in the atmosphere, which raise global temperatures and alter weather patterns. According to Fernandez, while the emission of greenhouse gases in developed countries is declining, there is an increase in usage by developing countries like China.

Acid deposition (more commonly known to the public as “acid rain”) is the environmental consequence of burning fossil fuels. Acid deposition (which means it includes all acidifying substances and forms coming out of the atmosphere such as acid rain, snow, fog (when intercepted), sleet, hail, as well as dry gases and particles of these chemicals) contains higher than normal amounts of nitric and sulfuric acids, which are depleting calcium nutrients in maple hardwoods. Sugar maples like a lot of nutrients in their soil, it helps them grow, cope with disease, provides internal signaling (i.e. when to seal off decay or injury, when to take up water).

Since 1995 Scott Bailey (a geologist/soil scientist) has worked with Steve Horsley (a forest physiologist), Bob Long (a plant pathologist), and Rich Hallett (an expert in foliar chemistry) on studying sugar maple health and growth in relation to nutrition and stress in the northeastern United States. Their findings thus far show sugar maple decline events have been more common in the last 40 years or so due to a predisposing nutrient imbalance (inadequate amount of calcium and magnesium in the soil primarily caused by acid rain) compounded by an inciting secondary stress (insect defoliation by Forest Tent Caterpillars among others and deep soil freezing).

Beginning in late summer, sugar maple trees begin storing excess starches. The starch is stored until spring, when due to warming temperatures it converts to sugars. The (green) leaves of a sugar maple tree use sunlight to convert the starches into sugars. This process is known as photosynthesis. When defoliating insects damage the leaves of a sugar maple tree by eating them, they remove the photosynthetic tissue critical for plant maintenance and growth.

Bailey believes climate change and milder winters contribute to the insect infestations threatening sugar maples. Historically native insects are on a cycle breaking out every 10 – 20 years, then the population dies down. What’s been happening instead, Bailey said is species are going away and coming back every 3-4 years. If the soil is good (adequate nutrition) research shows maples are resilient.

 Let's make sure to get out and enjoy those maples and support the sugar producers now!

Photo by Sharon Kitchens.

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About the Author

Sharon Kitchens is a neo-homesteader learning the ins and outs of country living by luck and pluck and a lot of expert advice. She writes about bees for The Huffington Post and stuff she loves on her personal blog, deliciousmusings.com.

When she is not writing, she enjoys edible gardening, reading books on food and/or thinking about food, hanging out by her beehives and patiently tracking down her chickens in the woods behind her old farmhouse.

In her blog, Sharon profiles farm families, reports on farm-based education and internships, conducts Q&A's with master beekeepers, offers tips on picking a CSA, and much more.

Sharon can be contacted at kitchens.sharon@gmail.com or on Twitter @deliciousmusing.

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