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Ohio's Maple Syrup Threatened By Climate Change

The sugar shack at Flying Mouse Farms in Yellow Springs on a cool March morning.
Chris Welter
/
WYSO
The sugar shack at Flying Mouse Farms in Yellow Springs on a cool March morning.

During the early spring, maple sap dripping into a bucket is a comforting, familiar sound to Michele Burns. Michele and her husband John have been making maple syrup at Flying Mouse Farms in Yellow Springs since 2007. Usually they hold an open house every spring where visitors can tour the operation, but it was cancelled this year due to the pandemic.

 Two different ways of collecting sap from sugar maple trees at Flying Mouse Farms in Yellow Springs.
Chris Welter
Two different ways of collecting sap from sugar maple trees at Flying Mouse Farms in Yellow Springs.

Michele, John and their staff tap hundreds of sugar maple trees around Yellow Springs. Once the buckets are full, the sap is transported in big plastic containers on the back of a pick-up truck to a small building on the farm. It’s called the sugar shack.

There, the syrup is held in a tank and eventually boiled in a wood burning evaporator. The farm uses waste from local tree trimming companies to power the boiler.

 The woodpile behind the sugar shack at Flying Mouse Farms. You can see the maple mist coming out of the chimney.
Chris Welter
The woodpile behind the sugar shack at Flying Mouse Farms. You can see the maple mist coming out of the chimney.

As the sap boils, the shack fills with a sweet maple mist. After a while, all that’s left is the rich, thick syrup. John spends lots of time in the sugar shack this time of year. He said he thinks the maple mist is good for his lungs.

As the season progresses, the syrup becomes darker and more amber in color. When the season starts, the ratio of syrup to sap is about sixty to one. But by the end of the season, the ratio is more like forty to one. In the northeast United States and in Canada, the light, golden early-season syrup that’s perfect for pancakes is revered. But Michele says in southwest Ohio lots of people prefer the amber variety that can be used for marinades and in cooking. The syrup was a medium amber the day I visited the farm. It was just half a week until the end of the season.

Syrup in the sugar shack that is almost ready to be canned and sealed.
Chris Welter
Syrup in the sugar shack that is almost ready to be canned and sealed.

As soon as the syrup is ready, John seals the syrup into different sized jars. Then, the syrup is ready to be sold. Flying Mouse Farms syrup can be found in local restaurants and at the Yellow Springs Farmers Market.

But this year, because of the weather, there will be a lot less syrup than usual.

“We're looking for days that are in the forties and nights that are below freezing. That triggers the sap to run.” Michele said. “It creates a situation where the sap is running during the day and then stopping at night so that you get a break.”

But there weren’t too many days like that this year. Michele said this year’s snow storms and freezing temperatures shortened the syrup season by about three weeks while they waited for the ground to thaw.

Maple mist filling the sugar shack.
Chris Welter
Maple mist filling the sugar shack.

But what Michele is really worried about is the long term. The larger trends of climate change and warming winters means that Ohio may not be a good home for sugar maple trees for too much longer. Michele said they have been forced to tap trees earlier and earlier in the season, when there are more of those perfect days with temperatures in the forties and nights just below freezing.

Projections of mean values for sap metrics for the historical period (a–d) and the end of the century (e–h), and the change in mean value between the historical period and the end of the century (i–l). Blue diamonds show the locations of ACERnet sampling sites, while the thick black line shows the current range limit for sugar maple.
Joshua M. Rapp, David A. Lutz, Ryan D. Huish, Boris Dufour, Selena Ahmed, Toni Lyn Morelli, Kristina A. Stinson, Finding the sweet spot: Shifting optimal climate for maple syrup production in North America, Forest Ecology and Management, Volume 448, 2019, Pages 187-197, ISSN 0378-1127
Projections of mean values for sap metrics for the historical period (a–d) and the end of the century (e–h), and the change in mean value between the historical period and the end of the century (i–l). Blue diamonds show the locations of ACERnet sampling sites, while the thick black line shows the current range limit for sugar maple.

Southwest Ohio is on the southern edge of the sugar maple's range. Studies suggest the warming climate will push maple syrup production north beyond Ohio in as little as thirty years.

“So it's pretty dramatic to think that John made it with his grandparents, but if we have grandkids we will probably not be making maple syrup,”Michele said.

Fortunately, she said last year’s maple syrup season was spectacular. They had six weeks of good syrup weather. So the syrup they still have leftover should be enough to make up for the shorter season this year.

Environmental reporter Chris Welter is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.