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Steve Taylor: A Changing, Thriving Maple Industry

Rob Taylor, of Meriden, cleans a sap reservoir at Taylor Brothers Sugarhouse last March. (Valley News - Theophil Syslo)

Rob Taylor, of Meriden, cleans a sap reservoir at Taylor Brothers Sugarhouse last March. (Valley News - Theophil Syslo)

Plainfield

Few aspects of life in Vermont and New Hampshire are imbued with more myths and old wives’ tales than the production of maple syrup. Now that the 2013 sugaring season is under way, it’s fun to list off a few:

∎  Vermont-made syrup is different (read better) from syrup made elsewhere, especially New Hampshire. Truth: All maple syrup, no matter where it’s made, has the same molecular composition, and if it doesn’t, it’s been adulterated or incorrectly processed.

∎  Syrup produced with wood heat is superior to that made with oil or propane. Truth: Thermal energy passing up through the bottom of steel boiling pans has no identifying DNA or any differentiating characteristics determined by their source.

∎ Sap collected via plastic tubing is inferior to that gathered from galvanized buckets hung on the trees. Truth: Tubing actually keeps impurities such as bark, bugs and, yes, squirrels, from getting into the raw sap before it gets to the sugarhouse.

∎  The maple industry is a classic piece of vanishing rural upcountry New England culture. Truth: Some producers cling to the old ways, but the core of syrup-making has shifted to the intensive application of modern technology and ever-larger-sized operations, such that there’s concern maple is headed in the direction of dairy farming with too much production putting downward pressure on price and profitability.

∎ Climate change is going to doom maple production in Vermont and New Hampshire. After those 70-degree temperatures arrived in the heart of the 2012 sap season, numerous observers and media organizations took up the theme that syrup-making won’t be around in these parts much longer, that it will all soon be gone north to Quebec for good. Of course, they forgot that the previous year saw modern-era production records broken in both states.

Then there’s been a legitimate debate over what has come to be called maple tree decline, a condition that’s observable in the form of young trees not growing well and established trees showing stunted leaves and other signs of ill health.

Maple tree decline has been blamed on numerous factors, including overtapping by syrup makers, use of motorized equipment in the woods, invasive insects and tree species, roaming livestock, global warming and acid rain.

This last possible cause has been gaining credence lately, even though installation of pollution-control equipment in fossil-fueled electric generating plants has greatly lessened acid rain deposition on northeastern forests over the past two decades. It appears increasingly likely that acid rain that fell in the 1970s and 1980s is a legitimate culprit in declining vitality of maples in some areas of the Northeast.

Scientists with the Hubbard Brook Forest Research Foundation in the White Mountain National Forest have been conducting intensive studies of maple tree decline in forest plots from Maine to Pennsylvania and they believe acid rain that fell 30 and 40 years ago may have changed soil chemistry in ways that hurt maples.

The researchers have soil chemistry data from various plots that were sampled in the early 1960s to compare with samples taken from the same locations recently. Across the board these samples show dramatic declines in levels of calcium and magnesium in the topsoil and resultant increases in soil acidity. And tissue samples taken from leaves of unhealthy-looking trees also reveal reduced calcium and magnesium in the trees themselves.

In one test forest, pelletized wollastonite, a source of calcium and magnesium, was spread from helicopters in an effort to restore soil concentrations of the two elements and raise soil pH to pre-20th-century levels. Within two years concentrations of calcium in leaf tissues increased significantly and acidity of the soil was declining.

Of greater interest was the marked improvement seen in the health of the tree stand. Mature trees were exhibiting much more robust leaf canopy, saplings were growing vigorously and there was a resurgence of seedling appearance on the forest floor. A paper discussing the results of the study is careful to avoid calling acid rain the prime villain in maple tree decline, but it declares that the results “reinforce and extend other regional observations that sugar maple decline in the northeastern United States and southern Canada is caused in part by anthropogenic (human-caused) effects on soil calcium status.”

Clearly no Vermont or New Hampshire maple producer is going to be hiring helicopters at hundreds of dollars an hour to spread calcium over their sugarbushes, so the best they can hope for is their trees will gradually adapt to the changes in the dirt wrought by acid rain deposition a generation or more ago.

Uncertainty about tree health or any number of other variables and unknowns isn’t dissuading maple producers from expanding or new players from getting into the game, however. Operations in both states are adding capacity, in some instances 10,000 or 15,000 taps at a whack, while startup enterprises with as many as 20,000 taps are coming on line at a typical initial investment of upward of $10 per tap. The New Hampshire Maple Producers Association at its recent annual meeting in Lebanon learned that membership in the organization has jumped by about 25 percent in the last two years, mostly from small-scale producers coming in.

Oh, yes, there’s always that old tale about the difference between Vermont and New Hampshire with respect to squirrels found floating in tanks of sap. The Vermont producer will pull the carcass out of the liquid and quickly toss it aside; the New Hampshire producer will pull it out and wring it dry before tossing it aside.

Steve Taylor lives and farms in Meriden. He contributes occasionally to the Valley News.