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Keene panel to focus on future of maple sugaring in Granite State

Union Leader Correspondent

March 06. 2016 11:26PM
Brad Presby and his wife, Jo, in the couple's sugarhouse at Presby's Maple Farm in Bethlehem. On March 9, Brad Presby will address a gathering at Keene State College about climate change and its impact on New Hampshire's maple sugar industry. The Presby family has been making maple syrup for five generations in the state's North Country. (John Koziol)

BETHLEHEM — Brad Presby’s family has been making maple syrup for five generations. But he and his wife, Jo, have been tapping into what he humorously describes as “free range” trees for the past two decades.

Over the years, Presby, who owns and operates Presby’s Maple Farm on Hazen Road, has seen technology change the way sap is gathered, the way it’s boiled into syrup and how it is sold in a world whose demand for the sweet stuff has only grown.

On a less positive note, Presby has witnessed changes in the weather that have simultaneously pushed up the start of the annual maple sugaring season while also pushing back its conclusion.

He is bullish on the prospects of New Hampshire producing even more maple syrup; the entrance of new, younger maple sugar producers and the possibility that maple sugaring will be not only a continuation of a long-held Granite State tradition, but also a major cash crop.

What concerns Presby, however, is whether the positives he foresees can come to fruition given the weather changes and the fact, that, in his opinion, many people don’t fully appreciate how big and important maple sugaring is to the New Hampshire economy.

Those and other issues will be addressed by Presby and a panel of experts on March 9 during the Climate Impacts Maple Breakfast at Keene State College.

Sponsored by Moms Clean Air Force, Union of Concerned Scientists, League of Conservation Voters, National Wildlife Federation, Environment New Hampshire, New Hampshire Sierra Club and the Keene State College Ecology Club, the event will be held on the eve of New Hampshire’s Maple Syrup Weekend.

In addition to enjoying pancakes with real maple syrup, attendees will hear presentations from Phil Suter of the Greater Keene Chamber of Commerce; Steven Roberge, Cheshire County Extension field specialist; and three maple producers: Presby; Glenn Yardley, of Stonewall Farm in Keene; and Peter Rhoades, of Alstead.

Roberge, also a forester, said his talk will examine the conditions necessary for sap production and how maple trees can cope with the changing weather that some forecasting models have predicted.

Rainfall is important for maple sugar production, but it’s not clear if maple trees can accommodate themselves to the way it’s being delivered, said Roberge.

“Maple trees are pretty picky trees. They’re nutrient-demanding and they also need a good amount of water,” Roberge said, adding that the trees are “not very drought tolerant.”

“We may have the same amount of rain the whole year but some models say we will see it at different times. There may be summer droughts and less of the gentle rain and more of the deluges.”

If those precipitation models become a reality, “we may see a decline in sugar maples,” said Roberge, “but it’s not going to happen overnight. When we’re dealing with trees, it never does.”

Trees are “truly impressive organisms in that they have this resiliency built into them but they can’t leave so the question is, when things change are they changing too fast for them or a totally different experience, and if so, is the resiliency they built in over centuries” enough to protect them,” Roberge said, “and we don’t have the answers just yet.”

Climate change is a complex phenomenon and not one thing may correct it, but something needs to be done, said Roberg, noting that the acid rain problem of the 1990s was addressed through multi-party, private-public efforts to reduce sulfur from the emissions of fossil-fueled energy plants in the Midwest.

Once the sulfur was reduced, “We’ve seen both a resurgence in sugar maple and red spruce health,” said Roberge.

At the Presby’s Maple Farm, the initiative means using solar energy to power the sugaring operation, and, eventually, biofuels.

Brad Presby said maple sugar makers, as a group, know that climate change is affecting how they do things, but noted that they haven’t figured out yet how to deal with it.

While running earlier — some New Hampshire farmers were tapping and boiling in the first weeks of January this year, traditionally, the ones in central and northern parts of the state have not tapped until town meeting time in March and have “sugared off” in April because the sap is not as sweet as it has been in the past, said Presby, meaning that more is required to make a good syrup.

Presby is also worried about the threat to maple trees from the invasive, Asian long-horned beetle, whose presence has been confirmed in southern New Hampshire but not yet in the North Country.

Although New Hampshire produces a relatively modest amount of syrup each year compared to states like Vermont, “sugaring is way bigger than many people realize,” said Presby, because they fail to understand that farmers here are also processing maple syrup brought in from out of the region, even from Canada.

By his math, the New Hampshire maple sugar industry — both production and processing — is worth about $200 million a year.

When he speaks at the maple sugar breakfast in Keene next week, Presby said he will stress that maple sugaring has to be “celebrated, promoted and protected.”

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