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NH's maple sap isn't as sweet as it once was

Union Leader Correspondent

March 25. 2015 9:24PM
University of New Hampshire senior Tristan Amaral pours maple syrup over his pancakes at a forum on climate change and its impact on the maple sugar industry in New Hampshire Wednesday at UNH. (JASON SCHREIBER/Union Leader Correspondent)

DURHAM — The news isn’t so sweet for New Hampshire’s maple syrup industry.

Climate changes are posing more challenges for the state’s maple producers, according to experts who spoke at a forum Wednesday on the impacts to the state’s maple trees and the future of the state’s $200 million a year industry.

Nearly 100 people attended the forum, which was held during a pancake breakfast where guests poured real maple syrup on pancakes while listening to speakers address the importance of maple sugaring and how climate disruptions are threatening the industry.

Experts outlined how weather extremes have made the industry highly variable, but explained how producers can adapt to the changes.

The forum was hosted by the UNH Sustainability Institute and Student Environmental Coalition with sponsors Moms Clean Air Force, Union of Concerned Scientists, National Wildlife Federation, League of Conservation Voters, Environment New Hampshire and the New Hampshire Sierra Club.

Martha Carlson produces syrup at her farm in Sandwich and has researched the impacts on maple trees. “Our patterns of seasons and precipitation and our expected weather is changing,” she said.

The most noticeable change is in the sweetness of the sap. A century ago, she said, sap contained about 3.5 percent sugar, but that has now dropped to about 2 percent.

The change means it takes more sap to produce syrup than ever before.

“The tree also has less sugar for leaves, for buds, for surviving in hot, strange weather conditions,” she said.

The sugar production season has also changed.

Producers in the Lakes Region used to tap in mid- to late March during the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, Carlson said, but by the 1950s they started tapping at the end of February.

Weather makes the season highly variable from one year to the next. In 2012, trees were tapped in late January, and the season ended on March 12 when the temperature hit 93 degrees.

This year’s season is late; Carlson has yet to make a single pint of syrup.

Brad Presby is a fifth-generation sugar maker at Presby’s Maple Farm in Bethlehem and is a member of the New Hampshire Maple Producers’ Association. (The association’s members open their doors to visitors for the annual Maple Weekend this Saturday and Sunday.)

Presby said New Hampshire sugar makers produce about 160,000 gallons of syrup each season. The industry employs about 1,000 people.

“What people don’t realize is the state of New Hampshire is one of the bigger packing states,” he said. “We have two major companies here that package syrup that’s been all over the world, and they’re going through in excess of 3 million gallons. That’s equivalent to no less than a $150 million value, so if you really look at the whole total sales and everything that goes on in New Hampshire, it’s about a $200 million industry that no one knows about.”

In addition to climate changes, Presby said, producers are also worried about threats from the Asian long-horned beetle, an invasive insect that threatens hardwood trees.

Speakers at the forum encouraged students and other guests to take action to address some of the concerns.

“It’s really a solutions-based forum where we want to get the scientific information together and be prepared for the future so that we can still have maple sugar in the future,” said Catherine Corkery, director of the New Hampshire Sierra Club.

Those in attendance were encouraged to write letters to the editor, call legislators to express concerns about climate, and send a letter to Gov. Maggie Hassan stressing the need to cut greenhouse gases and urging support for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan’s carbon emissions standards and the newly released ozone standards.

“We have to stop using fossil fuels. We have to invest in alternative energy. We need innovation in science and technology,” Carlson said.

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