Mild Ontario winters are now helping produce maple syrup but pose a long-term threat, producers fear
Maple syrup maker Kent Breedon is trying to make the most of Ontario’s mild winters while he still can.
For now, this means that the tapping season will start early, with more opportunities to bring in a larger harvest. But years later, it could mean his tree farm in Alliston, Ontario is finally being developed.
“It’s worrying that the weather is changing so quickly,” said Breedon, who has been running Breedon’s Maple Syrup with his wife for 28 years.
“If I have grandkids making syrup, it might be too warm to make.”
Keedon said climate change made it difficult to predict when the machines would need to be ready and workers sent to tap their roughly 12,000 trees each year. That year, he said, the farm started tapping in early February — the earliest date since they started production.
And he’s not alone. Growers across Ontario face the same problem and rely on each other when it comes to when to start harvesting, said John Williams, executive director of the Ontario Maple Syrup Producers’ Association.
Because the tapholes will only stay open for a limited time, farmers don’t want to tap too early or too late or they could miss out, he said.
“Everything is very ephemeral now. It’s always changing. You’re never quite sure,” Williams said.
Williams said the industry is in good shape as recent advances in technology and manufacturing have helped offset any instability in weather trends.
But the industry’s long-term stability is still something to “keep in mind,” he said, with other factors such as invasive species and extreme weather phenomena like droughts and storms posing challenges.
“It only stands to reason that if the conditions aren’t good for them, we’ll have less of these sugars available and we’ll have more stress on the tree,” Williams said.
How can industry be protected from climate change?
According to David Phillips, Canada’s senior climatologist for environment and climate change, the ideal weather to tap into is when temperatures hit 5°C during the day and -5°C at night. Williams said that in previous harvests, there was at least a week when farmers expected and waited for these conditions.
Now, Phillips said, producers in the US state of Vermont, along with those in Quebec and New Brunswick, are also seeing mild winter seasons, with many tapping three weeks earlier than usual.
“It’s about being flexible. It’s about being resilient. It’s about being adaptable. You almost have to go [with] what Mother Nature tells you when she’s going to give you,” Phillips said.
According to the federal government, most of the world’s maple syrup is made in Canada. Last year, the industry produced a record high of 17.4 million gallons of maple syrup, more than 50 percent more than in 2021.
Peter Kuitenbrouwer, a forester and author who is currently writing the history of maple syrup, said tackling climate change is the solution to protecting the industry.
“This is an iconic industry, something that’s so important to our nation, and it’s also a big part of the economy. And that’s why I think we have to do our part to fight climate change to protect the industry,” said Kuitenbrouwer.
“We can break free from our dependence on fossil fuels. We can become a low-carbon economy and try to slow the spread of global warming. You know, that’s the big picture.”