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February 10, 2013

Climate impact to be felt

For many of the region’s maple-syrup producers, the 2012 sugaring season was unlike any they’d ever experienced. Several of the smaller producers I spoke with last year told me that it was their worst season ever. A few said it lasted literally one, or less than one week. A few didn’t even bother to tap.

According to the Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service, syrup production in New York State decreased by more than 36 percent, from 564,000 gallons with a value of just over $22 million in 2011 to 360,000 gallons with a value of just under $12.3 million in 2012.

We had an unusually warm winter last year. I can recall a friend of mine lightheartedly calling January “March-uary.” And the month of March felt more like May. In fact, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said it was the warmest March on record for all of the lower 48 states (and the government has been keeping records since 1895).

Daytime high temperatures in our region ranged from the high 60s through the low 80s for weeks, shattering previous records on a nearly daily basis. Nighttime low temperatures remained where maple syrup producers would’ve liked daytime highs to have been.

Sugaring is a weather-related industry. Production hinges on the freezing nights and daytime thaws that cause sap to run. Fewer freeze-thaw days translates to fewer sap runs which, in turn, translates to less syrup being produced. Optimum sap production occurs when nighttime temperatures fall into the 20s and daytime temperatures range in the 40s, preferably with sunny skies, allowing the season to gradually transition from winter to spring.

In recent years, scientists at Cornell University, at the University of Vermont’s Proctor Maple Research Center and elsewhere have been looking closely at changes in the onset and duration of the sugaring season. In testimony before Congress in 2007, Proctor Maple Research Center Director Timothy Perkins said the Vermont sugaring season now begins about eight days earlier and ends about 11 days earlier than it did 40 years ago. A Cornell study, which was funded by the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station and NOAA and completed in 2010, looked at the relationship between sap flow and temperature at thousands of locations from North Carolina to Quebec and as far west as Minnesota.

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