Warmer than normal temperatures have some maple syrup producers tapping trees weeks ahead of schedule. Credit: Aislinn Sarnacki / BDN

The last thing Casey Belangey thought he’d be doing this weekend is boiling maple sap. But thanks to this winter’s unusually warm conditions, the Arundal maple syrup producer has been tapping his 1,000 maple trees for the past two weeks, more than a month ahead of what is considered the normal start of maple syrup season in Maine.

“It’s kind of crazy to think this is what I’m doing,” Belanger said Friday afternoon. “But the weather has been good for it.”

In order to collect the sap from sugar maple trees, producers need nights that are below freezing and daytime temperatures between 40- and 45-degrees Fahrenheit. Those conditions create pressure changes within the wood of three that forces the sap to flow. That sap flow can be collected out a hole drilled into the tree trunk, a process called “tapping.”

Here in Maine, those conditions historically have started in late February or early March in southern parts of the state and in late March or early April in the northern areas.

But a warming trend is changing all that.

winter warming

“I think this is probably a sign of things to come,” said Lyle Merrifield, president of the Maine Maple Producers. “Some of the larger producers have been making syrup for the last two weeks [and] there is no question climate change is having an effect.”

The trend toward earlier tapping seasons in Maine started about a decade ago, according to Merrifield.

“Like anything, you need to look at the big picture and next year could be back to normal,” he said. “But, we’ve seen for the last 10 years the start dates have been creeping earlier.”

There is no real downside to taking advantage of these early conditions, according to Meriweather. But he did say it’s important to keep in mind that every maple tree has a finite amount of sap.

“That tree will only give up so much [sap] before it starts putting buds out,” he said. “There is only so much good sap in a tree and a lot of the producers are still going to wait until March to tap.”

Belanger is happy to get this early jump on the season, especially since it’s allowing him to do some troubleshooting.

“We have done some expanding and have a lot of new equipment,” he said. “So tapping this early has helped me work out the bugs so when it really starts running in March, we will be able to hit the ground hard.”

coping with climate change

He doubts he will be tapping continually until then, as the weather conditions will likely stop the sap from running in his area next week.

Belanger said he anticipates this early sap will have a lower sugar content than what will flow in a month or two.

You need big temperature swings to boost the sap’s sugar content, something that is not happening right now. That means is it will take more than the standard 40 gallons of sap to get a gallon of syrup

Those big temperature swings have already become increasingly rare near the coast, even at the height of a normal maple syrup season. where Merrifield operates.

“That’s another area where climate change is affecting us,” he said. “We seem to be losing out on production [because] we are not getting those big temperature swings like we used to.”

Things are not all gloom and doom for the state’s maple syrup industry, according to Merrifield. Last year Maine was the third largest producer in the country with 672,000 gallons and looks to hold that spot again this season.

“We are seeing expansion in the industry,” Merrifield said. “Maple syrup production is growing by leaps and bounds here.”

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.