How new research is changing what we know about maple syrup production
While many may not think of maple syrup as anything beyond a pancake topping, for some, it’s the focus of years of research.
Maple syrup production has seen a variety of innovations in recent years, and a new study on sugar maple seed production after mast years has brought to light a new way of understanding the relationship between seeds and syrup production. Joshua Rapp, now a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, Davis, and Elizabeth Crone, associate professor of biology at Tufts University, conducted the study.
"We kind of started looking at this from testing ecological theory viewpoint, and then thought that this could also be a useful way of predicting the amount of sugar in the sap and then by extension the amount of syrup that can be produced overtime," Rapp said.
According to a news release from the Harvard Forest about the study, mast seeding - which Rapp said is "when plants flower and fruit abundantly every so many years," usually happens every two to five years. The study showed syrup production decreased following mast seeding events in Vermont in 2000, 2006, and 2011.
Previous studies looking at weather and correlations between different climate conditions and sap sugar had not proven very successful, according to Rapp.
Crone said early on in the study, she went to some local maple syrup seminars to become better acquainted with the industry. At the very first one, when discussing the freeze/thaw cycles, someone asked what determines the sugar in the sap, and the instructor of the seminar didn’t know.
This is something Rapp found most fascinating about their research. "[This research] was an example where we took an idea from ecological theory and then went and applied it to a system that practitioners are interested in but hadn’t thought of this particular relationship," he said. "Without the ecological theory, we may not have made the connection between seeds and syrup production. It’s a nice example of where basic research is informing practice."
In terms of future maple research, Crone said, "I think that from an applied perspective…sort of accounting for this amount of variation may help us detect other kinds of signals of climate change or other things and understanding that the different aspects of the physiology of the trees are connected."
But is climate change actually a threat to the maple syrup stock? The Guardian placed it on a list of "Eight foods you’re about to lose to climate change."
Rapp and Dr. Timothy Perkins of the University of Vermont Proctor Maple Research Center say that isn’t necessarily the case.
"There’s two scenarios where climate change could impact maple production," Perkins said. "The first is that it just gets too warm and we don’t have a reliable number of freeze/thaw conditions that promote sap flow. The second is by over a long period of time changing the forest composition so that we have fewer maple trees in the Northeast. If either of those things happen or both at the same time, then it is possible we could lose commercial production. That isn’t to say that there won’t be some people who still continue to make syrup, but a commercial maple industry could be threatened if either of those scenarios actually happen."
Rapp also noted, "Tapping season has become earlier and it’s become a little bit shorter, both the beginning and the end of the tapping season are moving earlier, but the end is moving faster than the beginning…If that trend continues, that could also have an adverse effect on maple tapping. Right now technology is kind of changing faster than climate is."
Perkins discussed maple syrup technology, as his work has focused on improving vacuum processes to help promote better sap flow as well as sanitation. Regarding potential climate change affecting the research, he said, "We’re simply looking at the tree response if warming continues and as warming continues. We’re not modeling climate ourselves. We’re just looking at potential tree responses to a changing environment."
By the numbers
Maple syrup production in 2014 was down 10% from 2013, according to a news release from the United States Department of Agriculture and the National Agricultural Statistics Service. The season had an average of 29 days as opposed to 37 in 2013. The release cited cold temperatures as the cause of the decline in length in 2014.