A string of mild early-February weather created an early — and in some cases bountiful — harvest for syrup producers in Ontario’s southwest.
Jakeman’s expands processing capacity
Transformation was underway for the nearly 150-year-old, family-owned Jakeman’s maple syrup business near Woodstock in the months before the pandemic….
But while some producers welcomed the season’s early arrival, the chair of the Climate Change Working Group of the Ontario Maple Syrup Producers Association sees ominous signs of what’s to come from global warming.
Why it matters: Syrup producers typically have a short weather window in which to complete their harvest and it could become more precarious as climate changes.
“We will see truncated seasons more and more,” Paul Renaud told Farmtario Feb. 16, the day he began the first of 150 taps on his small-scale Lanark County operation.
If syrup producers aren’t efficient in their tapping and collecting, he added, the variability of when the season starts and finishes in coming years will make it more difficult to profit from making syrup.
Renaud said the sap hadn’t started running in his sugarbush but he will be ready when warm days come.
There is still some snow cover in eastern Ontario and the ground remains frozen.
“(Required)” indicates required fields
That’s not the case around London and further south and west.
Jim Lumsden, of Lumsden Bros. Maple Syrup, started tapping Feb. 5 and finished Feb. 7, with 1,560 taps on vacuum lines between Nairn and Strathroy.
“There were ideal weather conditions coming up. I didn’t want to miss it,” he told Farmtario, noting other producers in his area tapped around the same time.
The earliest he has ever tapped in the past was Feb. 10, and whenever tapping has occurred in February, it has always seen short runs with low quantity. The sap would stop running a few days later when weather turned cold.
This year, by contrast, the weather was ideal for more than a week. Lumsden Bros. boiled for eight straight days and produced approximately 60 per cent of the amount of syrup they would bottle in an average harvest season. Those consecutive days of collecting and boiling are “very unusual for February. That usually doesn’t happen until March.”
Lumsden said the 2023 syrup “is excellent quality. The flavour is just beautiful. It’s nice and clear.”
The warming trend and shorter winters of recent years are undeniable but Lumsden is philosophical.
“In the end, there’s nothing you can do about it. That’s the thing about Mother Nature. She holds all the cards.”
This year there are no signs of buds in the sugar maples, so he expects at least a second sap run when warm weather returns.
As for the future, he’s confident his trees won’t suffer from a winter in which there was little ground freezing and almost no snow cover. Syrup is made as far south as Ohio now and “they have winters more like what we’ve had this year.”
Chad Jakeman, CEO of Jakeman’s Maple Syrup near Beachville, believes the short-term consequence of a warming climate is an extended syrup season but it also makes it more unpredictable. Producers who can adapt quickly to tap and boil when the opportunity arises will benefit.
“If it’s an early season, those kinds of producers tend to make more syrup, on average,” he said, but it’s not so good for those whose labour and infrastructure are tied more directly to the calendar.
Jakeman qualifies that by noting every year is different. In 2021, for example, consumer demand roughly doubled in the wake of COVID-19. But sugarbush operators across northeastern North America saw their harvest limited by adverse weather conditions and yielded just 60 per cent compared to a normal year.
“I’m beholden to the weather every year,” said Jakeman, who brings in syrup from much of southern Ontario and into the north and east. It is processed at a new bottling and packaging facility that opened just as the pandemic hit in March 2020.
“For me, (the start of tapping) is a really nervous time of the year because I never know what the harvest is going to look like.”
Jakeman shares others’ uncertainty about the effects of climate change on the industry. He hopes his company’s recent efforts to diversify packaging and marketing will help “future-proof” the business. His company is now the largest syrup packer in Ontario, supplying about 1,200 grocery stores across the country and in the U.S. and U.K.
He’s confident Ontario’s maple syrup sector will survive or grow even if the sugar maple’s range decreases in the next few decades.
“Ontario has more maple trees than Quebec, yet Quebec makes 72 per cent of the world’s maple syrup and Ontario makes only five per cent. I think there’s definitely room for growth.”
Renaud is certain there’s cause for grave concern. He cited recent Quebec research indicating that, in 70 years in the southern reaches of the province, autumn and spring conditions of sub-freezing nights and above-freezing days will coincide and there will be little winter ground freezing.
Persistent winter soil moisture will decrease viable sugar maple habitat in southern Quebec, and in Ontario to the south and west of Peterborough, the study said.
Renaud said its unknown whether damage to roots from lower frost coverage and increased soil moisture will affect syrup quality but research is ongoing. He believes “that is another shoe that could drop” on syrup producers as a result of warming temperatures.
“We need to act more vigorously on climate change,” he said.
The Quebec research he cited is based only on rising temperatures but more frequent severe storms are also a threat.
On Renaud’s property, the derecho of last May was the most damaging of three major windstorms that took out trees in 2022.
“I lost trees that were two feet in diameter,” he said and other producers in his area lost as many as half their producing trees in 2022.
“If you lose a maple tree, it takes 40 years to replace it. And none of that is insured.”
Some of the climate action goals pursued by the Canadian government and other organizations are aimed at stabilizing the situation by 2050.
“We can’t survive until 2050 if we get increasing frequency of damaging windstorms, as we saw last year,” said Renaud.
He operates on a “climate-neutral basis” and has been encouraging other Ontario syrup producers to pursue the same status, primarily by improving the heat efficiency of evaporation systems.
“Most of the carbon footprint on any syrup facility comes from this,” he said.
Renaud discovered his boiler was operating at only eight per cent efficiency. He made changes to address this and now uses less than a cord of wood for his annual production, compared to the previous four cords, to make the same amount of syrup.
After a couple of years of sharing information with producers across the province and crunching the numbers, he is confident that approximately 70,000 taps in the province are “probably climate-neutral.”
Most larger-scale producers had already made changes to increase efficiency because, when it comes to maple syrup production, fossil fuel efficiency often coincides with economic efficiency.
“When I started out doing this, so many producers were carbon neutral and they didn’t even know it … I’ve yet to find a producer over 1,000 taps that’s not climate neutral.”
The second biggest factor in reducing a syrup producer’s fossil fuel footprint is assessing how they get syrup to market. Packaging should also be addressed, he said.
“There’s a lot of embedded carbon in glass,” said Renaud, but producers of syrup and honey in Ontario can’t re-use glass containers.
“They have it in milk, beer and wine. Why not maple syrup and honey?”
Renaud believes there is a lack of understanding among policymakers about the carbon sequestration contributions made by farms.
No government officials have quantified the carbon sequestration on Canadian farms, he said.
He analyzed two Ontario farms from other production sectors — a large layer facility near London and a 200-cow dairy operation in his region. In both cases, he said the significant number of trees on each farm contributed to carbon sequestration and potentially rendered them carbon neutral.
“We’ve got a great story that we’re not telling.”
He said there’s a problem with climate action funding programs that promote tree planting but offer nothing to farmers for continuing to preserve existing trees and fence lines. One sugar maple, upon reaching tapping size, has already sequestered approximately one tonne of carbon, he said.
“Farmers are being told (through the limited climate action funding scope) that their existing trees have no value. We need to value trees. It’s absolutely essential we value trees.”