2012 is shaping up to be a year of broken weather records. Brad Johnson at Think Progress Green says “Fueled by billions of tons of greenhouse pollution, a surge of record warmth has flooded the United States, shattering records from southern California to North Dakota. ‘Temperatures have reached up to 40 degrees above early January averages in North Dakota,’ the Weather Channel reports.” The deep winter freeze which typically begins to grip the Northeastern states in November or December, has yet to sink in its teeth and the snowdrops have already sprung two to three months early.
While many fair weather fans rejoice at 50-60 degree temperatures in January and a “year that winter forgot”, there is a breed who follow the forecast with a dedication and fanaticism praying for sub-zero who revel in the traditional deep winter that the Northeast is known for. They are the maple sugarmakers and some are working to defend the sugar maple. NOAA data that shows average winter temperatures in the Northeast have increased by 2.8 degrees since 1971. A National Science Foundation study indicates that temperatures are warming faster than anticipated, and that at the rate things are going, by 2100 the climate in New England could be more like North Carolina’s or Georgia’s.
In the 1950s and ’60s, 80 percent of the world’s maple syrup came from the United States and 20 percent came from Canada. Today it’s just the opposite. This cannot be chalked up to climate change alone. Maple sugaring, especially on the small scale, can be extremely physically demanding and calls for long hours during the season. Like the rest of the agriculture industry, maple syrup has also seen the same economic pressures and producers have had to “get big or get out”. What was once a side project for traditional family operated dairy farms has now become a stand-alone industry and family farmers have been forced to choose between their trees or their cows.
Maple syrup producers in the Northeast and Canada have known that the seasons were changing for a while now. They are the winter’s first responders in an industry that straddles the shortest season of the year, a ‘time out of time’ known as sugaring off season, and they have raised the alarm. Sugarmaker and climate warrior Martha Carlson is on the front lines of this battle to save maple syrup. As early as the 1970’s, Carlson began to wonder about the increased amount of sap it took to make a gallon of syrup. A retired teacher, Carlson went back to school and began a research project, which has come to be known as Maple Watch. With the help of school children, she collects maple sap samples to be analyzed back in her lab at UNH. As a sugarmaker and New Englander, Carlson is concerned about the overall impact of the potential loss of maples from the region, which relies on tourism generated by the fall foliage and winter sports industries. “We’re not just talking about losing a few sugar maples,” says Carlson. “We’re really talking about losing a dominant species in our forest. That’s a scary idea.”
In New York, the maple industry faces mounting threats on other fronts. Upstate farmers have already faced climate related disasters in 2011 with the flooding that came with Hurricane Irene. Irene arrived in NY at the peak of the growing season, just before many crops would have been harvested and the losses were staggering. “I’ve been involved in agriculture my entire life, and there have been times when the weather has wreaked havoc on livestock and farms,” says New York State’s agriculture commissioner Darrel J. Aubertine. “But I don’t think I have ever seen anything on this scale here in New York.”
There is another looming disaster on the horizon if hydrofracking goes forward. Fracking has thus far been stalled in NY for over three years due to popular outcry. Gov. Cuomo was vague about his stance on fracking during his campaign, but now his true colors have come to light. According to the Center for American Progress, the climate-killing Koch Brothers bankrolled Gov. Cuomo to the tune of $87,000 and a total of over $240,000 in campaign funding in NY. The natural gas industry has pumped $1.34 million into the coffers of New York politicians and their parties, a new study revealed. The donations were sprinkled around over the last four years as lawmakers and state officials debated whether to allow the controversial drilling process, formally known as hydraulic fracturing, in the gas-rich Marcellus Shale formation upstate, Common Cause New York said in a recent report. Gov. Cuomo’s campaign committee took in $153,816 from the gas industry, according to Common Cause.
Fracking may release methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, into the atmosphere. Localized smog from this industrial process and increase in heavy traffic from tanker trucks will also affect sugar maples where fracking occurs. The danger of a spill is also a real threat to maple production, which depends on clean groundwater. It is not known if fracking chemicals may be taken up in the sap of maple trees, but one of the biggest effects fracking will have in Upstate NY is a loss of confidence in our agricultural products.
In 1791, Thomas Jefferson and his fellow Virginian James Madison, then a member of Congress, decided to up and travel north for a month—to Vermont and back. Historian Willard Sterne Randall wrote in American Heritage magazine that Jefferson “had come to think of the new state as the frontier ideal, a sort of unspoiled Virginia without slavery or entrenched tidewater aristocrats.” Jefferson hoped that the yeoman farmers of that unspoiled state could save the nation from depending on sugar grown in the British Caribbean using slave labor. The solution? Maple sugar. Jefferson was not exactly without sin in the matter of slavery, but he particularly liked the idea that maple sugar would be produced by free citizens living on family farms. Toward the end of his visit, the future president concluded a stirring speech in Bennington by saying, “Attention to our sugar orchards is essentially necessary to secure the independence of our country.” It is time for sugarmakers to take this sentiment to heart. If there ever was a time to stand up in defense of a tree, the time is now!