Syrup season started unusually early, but not in Montana
Maple syrup producers in the Northeast have been busy for several weeks ahead of schedule due to warmer weather. For Montana’s only commercially licensed syrup producer, it’s been a different story.
A range of maple syrups created in Vermont. (Allison Hope)
The Arctic air that sealed Montana roads in ice and sent temperatures plummeting below zero at the beginning of the week of Feb. 20 served as a boon to one local maple syrup producer.
David Knudson is the only commercially licensed maple syrup producer in the state, and while the unusually warm winter in the Northeast moved the timetable for maple syrup production up, the lower temperatures in Montana pushed back his schedule.
Syrup production typically begins as the temperatures hint at the arrival of spring, dipping below freezing at night while rising significantly during the day. The temperature fluctuations create pressure inside the tree, which allows the sap to flow, and following a freeze-thaw event, the sap can continue to flow for 30-72 hours, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. The typical season lasts between four to six weeks, ending when temperatures remain above freezing and the trees begin to bud.
April Lemay of April's Maples collects sap from maple trees. (Allison Hope)
Knudson operates an urban syrup business, Montana MapleWorks, where he taps trees on private land with the owner's permission. While the trees are scattered about the city of Missoula, he typically begins his season in February.
The start of the syrup season in Vermont varies for different locations, Allison Hope, the executive director of the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association, told AccuWeather. Generally, however, larger sugar makers may start around December or January, while the smaller ones may begin in February with a few outliers.
But the earliest start to spring in 40 years in the Northeast may have had a role in jumpstarting maple syrup production in the region.
"Last year seemed fairly average. This year it seems like, from what I'm hearing around the state, that folks are seeing sap runs earlier," Hope said, adding that the warmups in December had allowed larger sugarbushes, or forest stands of maple trees, to take advantage of the warmth and start tapping into trees. High temperatures in mid-February also allowed folks to take advantage of sap runs.
"Folks were making syrup last week, and some folks I talked to said, you know, by a couple of weeks, that may have been one of the earliest days they had started boiling," Hope said.
The impacts of climate change will most likely alter the timing of the season, she said. And already, the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association has had to adjust the schedule of its winter conferences. The three conferences used to be held during the first three weekends of January, but during the COVID-19 pandemic, Hope told AccuWeather they adjusted the schedule. The association pushed the conferences back to December, recognizing that early January, instead of February, had become significantly more busy.
While the early start doesn't impact syrup quality, winter and springtime temperatures are one factor that can impact the amount of syrup produced.
"Historically, most of the syrup is made in the Northeast in Vermont, and they've already pretty much been making syrup since January," Knudson told AccuWeather. "Generally, when you tap in your maple trees and you make syrup earlier than you generally expect to, the sap has less sugar content and also makes a lighter-colored syrup."
With less sugar content, a producer needs to use more sap to create syrup, impacting the amount of syrup they can create in a season.
From Dec. 1, 2022, to Feb. 22, 2023, winter temperatures in Burlington, Vermont, where a few syrup producers are located, tracked 6 degrees higher than normal when accounting for both day and nighttime temperatures. January was a particularly warm month, tracking 8.3 degrees above average.
Snow falls over a sugar house in Vermont. (Allison Hope)
Meanwhile, winter temperatures in Missoula, Montana, where Knudson's business is located, tracked lower than normal. From Dec. 1, 2022, to Feb. 22, 2023, the Missoula International Airport ran 1.2 degrees below average. The month of November alone had a departure of 8.8 degrees below average.
Temperatures departures from average from November through January. (NOAA)
Knudson typically sees a start to the season around Valentine's Day, but this year is off to a late start.
"This year is actually turning out to be a bit of a colder, longer winter than we've had since about 2019," he said, during an interview on Feb. 23. "Right now, it's like 3 degrees outside, 20 mph gusts, and I don't really see a window of tapping opportunity on the horizon."
Knudson has only collected sap from two trees this winter, once during the first week of February and then again in the second as daytime temperatures surfaced above freezing before dropping again at night. The Arctic blast plunged daily high temperatures back below freezing during the day, "resetting" the trees, according to Knudson.
"Cold is good for any plants in a cold climate because it keeps them on a 'normal' schedule," he said. "If it warms up too fast, too soon and stays warm long enough, then the plants will react accordingly, even when it's still winter and their photo awareness is off."
Temperatures bounced back over the weekend in Missoula, but the daily lows are forecast to continue to dip below freezing throughout the week, along with another bout of snowfall.
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