Hotter winters, darker syrup: Maple farmers fear climate change will upend New York's industry
- The end of winter is normally prime tree-tapping time for New York maple farmers. But for Dana Putnam, a fourth-generation maple farmer, last week was already too hot for the trees to properly freeze, thaw and produce sap.
- In New York this winter, there's been no snow or frost on the ground as climate change accelerates. Hotter winters have made it harder for farmers to pull sap from the trees and threaten to end the production season early.
- "I think about climate change and whether or not this maple business will be viable in a decade — it might not be," Putnam said.
ORANGE COUNTY, NY — Dana Putnam drilled into a maple tree, added a plastic tube and waited for the sap to flow.
It's the end of winter — prime tree-tapping time for New York maple farmers. But for Putnam, a fourth-generation maple farmer, last week was too hot for the trees to properly freeze, thaw and produce sap.
After weeks of experiencing hotter temperatures, Putnam is anxious his season will end early. And he's only collected half of the crop yield he says he should already have at this point.
"If we don't harvest enough syrup, we'll have to buy it. That changes our cost structure entirely," Putnam said. "I think about climate change and whether or not this maple business will be viable in a decade — it might not be."
Maple trees won't produce sap unless they undergo freezing and thawing cycles. But in New York this winter, there's been no snow or frost on the ground as climate change accelerates. The hotter temperatures have made it harder for farmers to pull sap from the trees and threaten to end the production season early.
New York's maple industry, the second largest in the country behind Vermont, is actually thriving, with production numbers hitting a 75-year record of 820,000 gallons of syrup in 2019. It's also seen substantial growth, with a 50% increase in production over the past five years, according to the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service.
However, climate change forecasts indicate the trend won't last — especially for smaller scale farms in New York, who are more vulnerable to rising temperatures and extreme weather than larger producers in states like Vermont. Putnam said his tapping seasons in 2017 and 2018 ended early, resulting in a 30% loss in crop yield each year. He expects this year will be similar.
"We're a small business. For us, the most significant thing is that we always buy some syrup, because sales are always more than production," he said. "But our margin is about 40% better when we can make it ourselves." Putnam's margin is generally 36% when he needs to purchase more syrup.
Temperatures in the Northeast have been constantly rising, with nine of the last ten years recording a higher than average annual temperature compared to the 30-year period from 1981-2010.
The state of New York is no exception to this regional trend: Eight of the last 10 years were hotter than average, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA.
On a local level, the story is the same for Putnam's Finding Home Farms in Middletown, New York. CNBC used data from the Northeast Regional Climate Center at Cornell University, a division of NOAA, to analyze temperature data at a weather station approximately 10 miles from Putnam's farm.
From Jan. 1 through February this year — typically ideal tapping time for maple farmers — an average temperature of 31.9 degrees Fahrenheit made this year the seventh hottest period on record dating back to 1892. All but eleven days in January and February were warmer than the 30-year average for that period, and temperatures on roughly half of the days never dropped below 26 degrees, conditions that would make for ideal maple sap flow.
If the heating trend continues, research shows the New York maple industry will eventually shift North, with more production in Canada, which dominates the maple market, and declines in syrup yields in the US.
Climate change has already negatively affected the color and taste of maple syrup in New York. The hotter weather has led to sap fermenting early, which changes the sugar chemistry and results in a darker, more intensely flavored syrup.
"You don't want that very dark, nuttier syrup on your pancakes," Putnam said. He's been producing more and more dark syrup, and said that eventually he won't be able to sell it grocers and consumers.
There's also the issues of pests and wildlife — including bears and squirrels — which are living through the warmer winters and chewing up Putnam's sap lines. A rise in insects like disease-carrying ticks on his land have also been a consequence of climate change.
The technology of maple syrup production has changed over the past few decades, allowing farmers like Putnam to temporarily adapt to more difficult circumstances. For instance, most farmers don't use buckets to collect syrup anymore. Instead, hundreds of miles of vacuum pump-operated tubing on maple farms has helped reduce labor costs and increased yields.
Despite technological advances and general success for maple production in the state, sap production will continue to slow if there's no cycle of freezing or thawing.
"What has been noted, especially this year, is that the nighttime temperatures don't go below freezing every night," said Helen Thomas, executive director of New York State Maple Producers Association. "We can have a three- or four-day period where daytime temperatures are warmer but the nighttime temperatures hover at 32 or 33 degrees," she said.
Farmers in the Northeast are also experiencing a rise in extreme weather events, including storms with heavier rain and longer dry spells. Heavy precipitation has increased in the Northeast more than any other region in the U.S.
"The last few years, we've seen really heavy rain and wind storms. The more storms, the more damage to our trees. Our maintenance costs go up significantly," Putnam said. "Before we invested in generators, we lost production in the peak season a few years ago during a storm. That hurt us."
Sharon Buck Collins, a syrup farmer at Buck Hill Farm in Jefferson, New York, said she's frustrated over not knowing when to tap her maple trees due to hotter winter seasons.
"It's always a guessing game, but it's never been more so a guessing game than right now," she said. "This winter is especially bewildering. We've had spring five times already."
Collins said she has shifted her business model away from selling large volumes of syrup, since she's not as confident about being able to increase yields anymore. She has recently curbed her selling to wholesalers since she can't rely on making more syrup each year.
"I think it bothers my son more than me," she said, adding that he is 26 years old and nearly ready to take over the business.
"It concerns him more, but I really try to explain to him that I'm learning to market our limited supply of syrup," she said. "That's the best I can do right now."
— CNBC's Nate Rattner contributed reporting