ESSAY: Makin’ Sugar Through Climate Change

by Burr Morse

EAST MONTPELIER — Whoaa…I’m standing here freezing to death on this pre-Christmas day, and they’re tellin’ me the planet is warmin’ up…What’s going on here? That’s right, our world these days is as wacky as the weather and that’s the way I’ll choose to describe both… wacky!

First of all, I’m not a scientist. I am a maple sugarmaker, a 68-year-old one, so I’ve seen my fair share of seasons. And it seems to me, since maple sugarin’ is tied to the weather more than just about anything else, that I’m qualified to talk about our wacky weather. We sugarmakers have experienced a lot of changes in late years: economy, technology, attitude, and, yes, weather… but wait…

For sure, we’ve had more than our share of poor seasons in the last 30 years, many because of nights that were not quite cold enough (remember: for sap to run well, nights must freeze down to the mid-twenties). But then there were seasons when it was too cold for too long! Yup, fresh in my mind are 2014 and 2015, when the entire sugarin’ month of March was lost to frigid winter temperatures, making terribly short sugar seasons… wacky!

Do I point an accusing finger to the weather? Well yes, but not because of weather that’s too warm, so “global warming” seems to not fit here, at least during sugaring season. Weather that’s too cold? Sometimes. Lest you, dear reader, think that I’m as wacky as, well, you know what, I’ll try to explain: About 20 years ago, maple sugarmakers started applying vacuum to every tree through their tubing systems. What vacuum does is this: The maple tree will only give out sap if the pressure inside the tree is greater than the atmospheric pressure outside the tree. That’s why all aspects of the weather — temperature, wind direction and/or humidity — are so important.  The wrong weather always presents us with the wrong sap scenario. But vacuum provides negative pressure outside of the tree. It simply tricks the tree into running sap.

Most of the vacuum folks will say the reason they installed the technology is because it yields them more sap, but I say “Come on guys, be truthful.” Vacuum is also used to give the tree the weather conditions it needs for sap to flow out. There, I said it! In short, I do think something’s up with our weather, but I’m not sure that our people and our economy are ready (or even able) to fix it. In the meantime, we’ll just keep on making the world’s best syrup every spring, and employing great proven technology to make it even better.