Warm winter, storm damage from Fiona could hamper NS maple syrup production

Maple growers say they're not sure what this sugar season will look like as the province has endured a milder-than-usual winter.  (Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press - photo credit)

Maple growers say they’re not sure what this sugar season will look like as the province has endured a milder-than-usual winter. (Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press – photo credit)

Maple syrup producers are bracing for an uncertain season as an unseasonably warm winter persists in the province.

Nova Scotia experienced one of the mildest Januarys on record this year, with warmer temperatures and less snowfall than usual.

For optimal sap flow, maples need cold, frosty nights at around -5 C and warmer, sunny days at around 5 C.

“If this continues, it’s going to be a bad year because you just won’t have the flows,” says Chris Hutchinson.

Hutchinson owns Hutchinson Acres, which develops approximately 60,000 trees in interior western Nova Scotia approximately between Aylesford and Bridgewater.

He says growers need cold weather to tap their trees because if they tap in warm weather, the culms used to collect sap fall out as the temperature drops.

“In the whole month of December, January we never had more than one or two days with minus.”

Hutchinson had already tapped many of its trees in January, but when extreme cold hit the province in early February, about 40 percent of its faucets went out, requiring him and his crew to go around and plug them all back in.

When he called the CBC early Tuesday, he was busy tapping in the woods, but Hutchinson says it’s possible he could miss some juice if he can’t finish the tapping in time.

Jack Julian/CBC

Jack Julian/CBC

Kevin McCormick, who runs McCormick’s Maple, says warm temperatures could also mean the season will be short this year. Without “really tough” days with constant temperatures below 0 C, maple trees wake up from their dormant phase more quickly, and without snow cover, the sun warms the ground and contributes to this effect.

“So it’s going a lot faster… The trees will progress very quickly and go from dormancy to budding, which sort of ends the season,” says McCormick, who has about 35,000 taps at Rodney near Springhill.

Damage from Fiona

In addition to making maple syrup, McCormick sells equipment and supplies to producers so he is in regular contact with others in the industry in the Maritimes.

He says many producers are still grappling with the effects of post-tropical storm Fiona, which hit the province on September 24, 2022 with winds up to 171 km/h.

Paul Palmer/CBC

Paul Palmer/CBC

Many trees were cut down entirely, while others were left crooked or with damaged tops and weakened root systems, leaving some survivors more vulnerable to future storms – including less powerful storms than Fiona.

“It took generations to grow our maple trees and just a few short hours in Fiona changed our forests for a lifetime and it will be many years before collection systems return to pre-Fiona levels,” he says.

Paul Palmer/CBC

Paul Palmer/CBC

In his own woodland, McCormick has found fallen trees with tapholes from the late 19th century.

“We saw these big old trees that were probably saplings in the mid-1800s. They stood up to Fiona. So … a sad reality that Mother Nature, you know, the climate is changing.”

McCormick says he expects about 30 percent fewer tree taps across the province this year due to damage from Fiona.

“It was a mess”

Jason Haverkort’s maple operation in St. Joseph, southwest of Antigonish, was decimated by Fiona, cutting down an estimated 40 to 50 percent of the trees and leaving thousands of others with broken branches or tops.

“Everything was down. It was a mess, you know, there were treetops that were on top of the roots of those behind them, so it was quite a mess.”

Haverkort was in the middle of tapping on Tuesday and is expected to be finished on Wednesday, with the possible start of the sugar season later this week.

Paul Palmer/CBC

Paul Palmer/CBC

He expects his total number of taps this year to be between 6,000 and 7,000 – a far cry from the 12,000 trees he tapped before Fiona.

“I doubt I’ll see production and tap numbers as high as they were when I was alive.”



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