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Getting things ready in January for the 2023 maple season

Maple Season 2023

As usual, I'm a little delayed in getting the season's maple syrup report written and posted to the website (though not as late as last year!). This year we bore witness to a maple syrup season that was as bountiful as it was intriguing. Despite the wider industry facing challenges, our 2023 season yielded a surprise influx of maple sap, especially in February. However, as we delve into the highlights and complexities of this sugaring season, it's impossible to ignore the larger questions looming over the maple industry - is climate change altering the sugaring seasons? And what does this mean for the future of maple farming?

I hope to properly unpack the experiences of the 2023 maple season at Carman Brook Farm, explore the weather anomalies experienced in the high elevations and northern locales, discuss the potential role of climate change, and ponder what the future holds for maple syrup production. Join us as we journey through the season of sweetness and surprises.

Overview of Maple Season 2023

The 2023 maple season was a mix of surprises and hurdles for maple syrup producers across the continental northeast. At Carman Brook Farm, located in northwestern Vermont, we experienced an above-average production season. Our maple trees yielded more sap and higher sugar content than usual, leading to higher maple syrup production than expected. This was a positive turn of events, despite the unpredictable weather we encountered throughout the year.

Year Hours Boiled Start Date End Date Season Length Days Boiled Gallons Produced
2023 166 2/10 4/11 61 41 7,702
2022 156 2/18 4/11 52 32 6,994
2021* 106 3/3 4/4 35 18 4,663
2020 235 2/24 4/4 41 32 7,513
2019 203 3/12 4/13 33 31 7,974
2018 197 2/16 4/21 65 45 7,050
2017 179 2/20 4/11 51 36 7,360
2016 247 2/21 4/17 57 37 6,989
Average 186 31 day spread 18 day spread 49 34 7,031

Overview of maple production at CBF

*2021 is the first year of production with our more efficient reverse osmosis machine.

However, the same could not be said for many other maple farms across the state. Statewide reports from Vermont showed an overall decrease in production by 20% from 2022. This varied from some farmers reporting extremely poor seasons, to better than average, so it wasn't a linear 20% decrease across the board for everyone. This is an eyebrow-raising departure from the norm where seasons tend to trend much the same for everyone.

USDA Vermont maple statistics for the past few years.

Our neighbors to the north in Quebec, Canada, had an even tougher run. In a sobering revelation, the reports show that the Quebecois producers reaped almost half an average syrup crop, making the situation far worse than what we experienced here in Vermont. For their part, the Federation of Quebec Maple Producers maintains a reserve for such lean times.

Many of the challenges encountered during this season can be attributed to the unpredictable weather conditions, particularly in higher elevations and more northerly regions. There was a noticeable delay in thawing conditions, with winter's icy grip holding firm well past its welcome. When accustomed spring temperatures finally did arrive, it came on abruptly, with a rapid warming period that set the stage for a shorter-than-usual maple sugaring window. These extreme conditions accounted for the lack of production, leaving us all pondering what the future of maple sugaring might look like in a climate that continues to surprise us.

The February Surprise

The month of February typically ushers in the initial stages of the maple season, serving as the prelude to the more intensive months to come. However, February 2023 had other plans at Carman Brook Farm. The sugarhouse was bustling, our taps were gushing, and we found ourselves knee-deep in an early season sap run that, while not unprecedented, definitely had us all hands on deck earlier than usual.

Reflecting on our records from the last ten seasons, we noticed that productive Februarys weren't completely out of the ordinary. The years 2020, 2018, and 2017 also gave us early starts, with 2018 even outperforming the 2023 season. Yet, it's crucial to highlight that such an early, substantial sap run doesn't quite fit into the larger, historical pattern of sugaring. Old-timers used to mark Vermont town meeting day as the typical start point (the first Tuesday in March, the 7th this year).

Year Gallons
2023 1,361
2022 289
2021 0
2020 958
2019 0
2018 1,395
2017 1,095
2016 449
2015 0
2014 97

In the past, February was a time of preparation, not production. Newspaper reports revealed an intriguing trend of sugarmakers across the state getting an even earlier start, with some beginning to produce maple syrup in late January! This accelerated start to the season deviates from the usual rhythm and further adds to the puzzling picture of 2023.

A key element of our success at Carman Brook Farm during this surprise February bounty was preparedness. We made sure we were ready to hit the ground running at the first sign of an early sap run. Our team was spearheaded by my brother, Levon, our go-to guy for navigating the twists and turns of the sugaring season. Thanks to his management, foresight and dedication, working in the woods early, setting up, and checking our lines to ensure we were prepared for whatever the season had in store for us.

Levon getting ahead at CBF for the 2023 maple season.

February 2023 served as a reminder that in the world of maple sugaring, as with all farming, being ready to adapt to nature's curveballs is an essential part of the job.

High Elevations, High Stakes

While Carman Brook Farm enjoyed an unusually successful February, the same couldn't be said for our counterparts operating at higher elevations and in more northern climates. For them, the 2023 maple season was a story of waiting, watching, and ultimately weathering an abrupt and challenging turn of events.

These landscapes, known for their breathtaking views and cooler temperatures, endured a prolonged period of cold weather. The biting cold that clung to these regions far into the calendar year had a tangible impact on their sugaring operations. Cold weather is not a sugarmaker's enemy – quite the opposite, in fact. The ideal conditions for sap flow in sugar maple trees involve freezing nights and warmer, above-freezing days. It's this freeze-thaw cycle that spurs the trees to produce sap, the lifeblood of making maple syrup.

However, the extended cold snap meant that their maple syrup season couldn't properly begin. Their trees remained locked in winter's grip, delaying the much-anticipated sap flow.

When the freeze finally did give way, it was quickly replaced by a surge of warmth that didn't allow for the freezing temperatures to return at night. Many of these sugarmakers were finally graced with their ideal sap-producing conditions - freezing nights and thawing temperatures during the day - in March as is typically expected. However, this was quickly followed by a sustained period of warmer temperatures. This unseasonably warm spell essentially "shut off" the trees, halting sap flow and effectively ending the sugaring season prematurely.

The 2023 season served as a stark reminder of how weather extremes can have a significant impact on syrup production.

Is Climate Change the Culprit?

As we reflect on the idiosyncrasies of the 2023 maple season, one question emerges above all others - could climate change be the driving force behind these unusual patterns? The shifts we've seen in weather patterns, the early sap runs, and the abrupt end to the sugaring season, all hint towards a greater force at play, namely climate change.

The connection between climate change and the evolving sugaring season is not just anecdotal. There's a growing body of scientific evidence suggesting a clear link between the two. For instance, researchers from the University of New Hampshire have noted significant swings in weather patterns during late winter and early spring, precisely when our sugaring season takes place. The weather during these crucial weeks has become increasingly unpredictable, which poses a considerable challenge for maple producers.

These findings align with our observations at Carman Brook Farm, as well as those reported by other sugarmakers across the state. We've all been noticing shifts in the timing and productivity of our sugaring seasons, which seem to correlate with broader changes in climate.

Looking to the future, it's essential to consider the potential impacts these changes could have on maple syrup production. If the trend continues, we might see more seasons like 2020 and 2012, when yields were low due to unfavorable weather conditions attributed to climate change. These seasonal fluctuations could have significant implications for our livelihoods and for the maple syrup industry as a whole.

The complexity of climate change and its myriad impacts make it a formidable challenge to tackle. However, by staying informed and adaptive, we can work towards mitigating its effects on our beloved maple sugaring tradition. Climate change may be a likely culprit for our changing seasons, but it also serves as a stark reminder of the need for sustainable practices and resilient farming communities.

Lessons from the Season

The 2023 maple season at Carman Brook Farm was nothing short of an instructive journey. As we navigated through the surprises and challenges, we gathered valuable lessons, shaped new strategies, and reinforced the importance of preparation, flexibility, and adaptability.

Setting up the mainline from one of our sugarwoods to the sugarhouse, it travels through the rafters of our old dairy barn.

One of the key lessons from this year was the importance of preparedness. We decided to tap our trees early in February, a move that proved to be crucial for our successful season. As the weather grew warmer and the sap started to flow, we were ready and waiting, not scrambling to catch up. This experience taught us that you can't simply flip a switch when it's go-time in the sugaring season. Being out in the woods, ready to tap when Mother Nature signals, is essential.

This readiness was no small feat. It required careful planning, keen observation of weather patterns, and a deep understanding of our trees (shout out to Levon, again). Yet, the effort paid off handsomely, and it's a strategy we intend to keep honing in future seasons.

Dog patrol on the move at CBF in preparation for the 2023 maple season.

The 2023 season also underscored the importance of flexibility and adaptability in farming, especially in the face of climate change's unpredictability. As sugarmakers, we are at the mercy of the weather. The start and end of our sugaring season, and the yield of our harvest, all hinge on the whims of nature. Being able to adapt to sudden changes, to pivot strategies at a moment's notice, is integral to our survival and success in this industry.

In farming, there's a saying that we're all too familiar with - "make hay while the sun shines". In the context of sugaring, perhaps it should be "tap and boil when the sap flows". Being prepared, flexible, and adaptable is our best response to the uncertainties we face. These are the lessons we've learned from the 2023 season and the values we'll carry forward as we continue our sugaring journey.

Looking Forward: Maple Season 2024 and Beyond

As we stand at the close of the 2023 maple season, our eyes are already set on the horizon of the next season and beyond at Carman Brook Farm. If this past season has taught us anything, it's that staying informed, vigilant, and adaptable is crucial to navigating the complex dance between nature and sugaring.

We plan to continue diving into the latest research and news regarding sugaring and climate change. Staying abreast of the science will enable us to make data-driven decisions, anticipate trends, and implement the best practices for our sugaring operations. However, even the most thorough research cannot replace the age-old wisdom of simply listening to Mother Nature. Observing her signals, adapting to her rhythms, and respecting her needs will remain the cornerstone of our approach.

While the specter of climate change hovers over the future of sugaring, it doesn't dampen our spirits. On the contrary, we see it as a call to resilience and innovation. Climate change, with all its challenges, is prompting us to reassess our practices, innovate, and become better stewards of the environment. The obstacles are real, but so is our determination to overcome them.

In this journey, we are not alone. You - our readers, our customers, our visitors - are an integral part of our sugaring story. As we venture into the 2024 season and beyond, we invite you to stay engaged with Carman Brook Farm. Follow our updates, pay us a visit, or enjoy our Vermont maple syrup. Your support helps us continue our cherished tradition of sugaring and fuels our mission to sustainably manage and preserve our precious maple trees.

Levon making sure everything's ship-shape in the sugarwoods.

In Conclusion

As we wrap up our reflections on the 2023 maple season, several key insights emerge. From an unexpectedly bountiful February at Carman Brook Farm to the challenging weather patterns faced by operations at higher elevations, the season brought a mix of blessings and challenges. All while casting a spotlight on the potential influence of climate change on our industry.

We've learned valuable lessons about preparedness, adaptability, and the power of sustainable practices. As the whispers of climate change become louder, we at Carman Brook Farm stand committed to heeding its call. We'll continue to refine our practices, deepen our understanding, and work to secure the future of our beloved sugaring tradition.

Yet, it's not a journey we can undertake alone. Now more than ever, the fate of our planet and the industries it nurtures calls for collective action. We encourage you to join this effort. Whether it's supporting sustainable farming practices, engaging with climate change initiatives, or sharing your own experiences and insights, your involvement matters. The choices we make today will determine the sweetness of our tomorrows.

To conclude, the 2023 maple season has been a testament to the resilience of nature and the enduring power of tradition. We eagerly look forward to the coming seasons with hope and determination. With your continued support and engagement, we believe that the future of sugaring at Carman Brook Farm will be as sweet as the sap that flows from our cherished maple trees.

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Comment 1

Levering White on

Thanks for this informative report!

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