Michigan’s maple syrup industry is growing at a time when climate change is both shortening the sap collection season and moving northward the range of sugar maples. But new technologies have increased efficiencies, and the recent cold winters have been great for maple sugar farmers.
Things are sweet in Michigan’s Sugarbush! In this installment of WEMU’s “The Green Room,” Barbara Lucas explores the environmental considerations of this homegrown industry.
Kirk Hedding: Welcome everybody to our operation here. This is our sugar shack and this is our evaporator room of the sugar shack. This is where we process all the sap that we collect out of the woods.
Barbara Lucas: We’re standing next to the large wood-fired evaporator at the annual open house of H&H Sugarbush in Chelsea. It’s owned by Kirk Hedding, an Ann Arbor firefighter, and his wife Michelle, a schoolteacher. Although the farm has been in the family for generations, they’re the first to tap their trees.
Hedding: We’re going to hear a dinger go off in a few seconds here, and that’s a timer to let us know that every 7 to 10 minutes we have to put four to five pieces of wood in here. I’m going to move out of the way because it gets hot when he opens that up!
Hedding: So he’ll keep that going there, and he’ll close it off there in a second… Door closes. …All right!
Lucas: Hedding says new technology has brought efficiencies, such as their reverse osmosis machine that takes over half the water out of the sap before they start boiling it to concentrate it’s sugar.
Hedding: That allows us to be able to cook 50 to 65% faster, but we also use 50 to 65% less firewood.
Lucas: Which reduces their carbon footprint. This use of their land is both renewable and sustainable—Hedding says their 30 acres supply enough firewood each year to transform all their sap into maple products.
Hedding: With Emerald Ash Borer going through quite a few years ago, and storms that come through and take trees down, we’ve got plenty of firewood.
Lucas: A walk through thawing snow to their woods shows an amazing web of 16,000 feet of plastic tubing going from their tapped 700 trees to a main line running to the sugar shack. You can see the sap bubbling along the tubing, and if you listen closely you can hear it gurgling along its path. Although traditionalists might balk at the plastic, Hedding says the tubing has benefits.
Hedding: This saves on wear and tear in the woods because we're not going out there with tractors all the time collecting every day, compacting the soils and tearing it apart and so it helps on the woods in that way, and with the tubing system with set up with vacuum we can actually double our process—twice as much sap income out of it.
Lucas: Hedding says the vacuum and tubing system doesn’t interfere with the many other benefits the woods provide to them.
Hedding: We use our woods for everything. We go hunting out there, we use it for lumber, we use it for firewood, we just use it for enjoyment for being out in the woods.
Lucas: The trees have other, less obvious benefits too: they absorb stormwater runoff, provide wildlife habitat, and store carbon, important for combatting climate change.
Parent: She has a question. Hedding: Yes? Child: I thought you made syrup in the fall.
Hedding: Actually they can make syrup in the fall time, because what we need is that freezing weather and warm weather, so we do get a bit of that in the fall time, but you get very little sap that time of year, so it’s usually not good enough to do. But you can do it!
Lucas: Being so weather dependent, how might a changing climate affect the industry? I consulted Dr. Abbey Van den Berg, of the Proctor Maple Research Center at the University of Vermont. She says there’s been a decrease in the temperature differential between cold nights and warm days, which is needed to create the pressure that results in productive sap flow.
Abbey Van den Berg: In the last forty years the overall season has decreased by about three days. How many freeze-thaw cycles we have, and when those happen, those are impacts that are being felt right now.
Lucas: Are these changes decreasing yields?
Van den Berg: The industry is able to overcome some of those impacts with the use of technology, to offset some of the decreases in sap yields due to those changes.
Lucas: But she says the changes can’t be denied.
Van den Berg: It's rare to be able to say something so concretely about climate change. No, this isn’t some distant future thing—this is something we're experiencing right now.
Lucas: She says the range of Sugar maples is shifting northward. What might happen to the maples, which are dominant in our area, long term? I spoke with forest ecologist Dr. Ines Ibanez near the University of Michigan campus, where she runs the Global Change Ecology Lab.
Ines Ibanez: Under drought conditions, they are probably one of the species that will be most affected, which will make it less competitive with respect to other species that can still keep growing.
Lucas: She says although it’s likely many maples could survive rising temperatures or drought, their stressed condition might attract insects that zero in on vulnerable trees.
Ibanez: It will probably take a long time to really change the forest but if you combine that with something else, like if a pest or some kind of disturbance—a tornado in one particular forest—if you combine it with something else, that forest may not be as resilient. It may not be able to recover, to what it was, anymore.
Lucas: But for the short term, maple sugaring has been good.
Cyndi Alexander: This year is one of the best sap seasons that we've had. You have to have a good solid cold winter and then the freezing-thawing activity in the spring.
Lucas: That’s maple farmer Cyndi Alexander, of the Michigan Maple Syrup Association. Climate change may not be a current worry, but the threat of insect invaders is.
Alexander: There is an Asian long-horned beetle that is further south that there is concern and we are all vigilant to watch for this creature because if it did come in it would kill the maples. Similar to how the emerald ash borer did, to the Ash trees.
Lucas: Alexander says so far Michigan’s maple trees are pest-free, so producers do not use pesticides on their trees. With no additives, she says pure maple syrup is naturally organic, although not many producers go the extra mile to get certified.
Alexander: If I were going to spend my money on organic food I would spend it on strawberries and not organic maple syrup. I would buy any kind of pure maple syrup, from Michigan.
Lucas: Alexander says maple syrup or sugar can substitute for beet or cane sugar, and although it is considerably more expensive, Michigan’s maple industry is growing fast.
Alexander: People want local food, people want natural food, people want pure food, and maple syrup fits that bill perfectly.
Lucas: She says the process does not hurt the trees, if done right.
Alexander: The little town of Shepherd, Michigan, where they tap all the trees right in town, they’ve been doing it for at least 60 years, tapping the same trees. You know there’s other cases of family’s sugarbushes where they’re tapping the same trees for 100 years or more.
Lucas: She says because the impacts are so minimal, there’s talk of tapping trees on state land.
Alexander: Similar to like the grazing lands out west, you know, where the federal government’s land is leased to livestock producers. We’re looking to a similar possibility here with state land and maple production.
Lucas: This proposal makes sense to Kirk Hedding, who points out it’s common out east.
Kirk Hedding: It’s natural out there, in Vermont and New York and everything. It’s natural to see buckets and tubing everywhere. Everybody’s used to it. They expect to see that. Around here it is still fairly new, especially in the southern part of Michigan.
Lucas: With nearly four million acres, Michigan has the largest state forest system in the country.
Hedding: Michigan is ranked about number four to six, all depends on the year, but if Michigan tapped all of our maple trees—sugar maple trees—we would actually be number one.
Lucas: Maple sugar’s price may be high, but its environmental impact is relatively low. Could an expansion of the industry have the added benefit of helping our woodlands to be valued and preserved? It’s a prospect some would consider sweet indeed!