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Economy and Business

Ohio's changing maple syrup business
Some trees being tapped earlier, and that affected this year's tourism

Kevin Niedermier
The maple syrup cabin on Burton's town square. A cabin devoted to maple syrup has sat on this site for 80 years. While that hasn't changed much, some producers say climate changes have affected the business.
Courtesy of Kevin Niedermer
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In The Region:

Ohio is among the nation’s top maple syrup producing states, usually ranking fourth or fifth nationally. And the centuries old process of tapping trees and slowly boiling down the sap is starting to change with the weather. A quarter of Ohio’s syrup production is in Northeast Ohio’s Geauga County.  And as WKSU’s Kevin Niedermier reports, earlier spring weather is affecting when some trees are tapped, and when tourists show up to watch the traditional methods.

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Maple syrup is big in Geauga County and the town of Burton. A working sugar shack sits in the town square and is open all year selling syrup and providing information on the local industry to tourists. Amy Blair of the Burton Chamber of Commerce manages the rustic cabin. Inside there’s a fire in the stone fireplace, cozy rockers, bottles of syrup, and jars of candy lining the counter.

“Maple sugar candy is crystalized. You heat the syrup to 240 degrees so you’re boiling more water out of it. You stir it when it’s hot and pour it into molds and it crystalizes in about a half hour and you can pop it out. It’s a very pure product, we don’t add anything to it.”

Maple syrup producers report earlier spring, earlier tapping

Blair says the chamber built the first cabin on this site in 1931. Farmers brought their maple syrup there and sold it to the chamber. The chamber then sold it to customers and used the proceeds to decorate the town for Christmas, plant flower in the summer and for scholarships. The cabin still generates funds for these community events. But Blair says she’s seeing changes.

“I’ve been making maple syrup at this cabin for ten years with my husband who is a fourth generation maple producer. His grandfather never tapped before February 4th during the 96 years he lived, other than 4 times, and this year was one of those times. Granted, it’s happened in the past, but it seems to be happening more often.”

Maple syrup production usually begins in March when above freezing temperatures during the day and below freezing temperatures at night get the sap flowing. Les Ober is with the Ohio State University Extension Agency in Geauga County. He agrees that this season was unusual.

This season unusual, but is it a trend?

“I had one producer who had 150 gallons made before February 3rd which is very, very unusual. The season started quickly and ended sooner than usual. Sometimes the season runs into April. It’s probably because of the warm winter we had. I don’t think this is starting a trend, but you won’t know until you have a couple years. The year before was more normal and we weren’t tapping that early.”

In 2011, Ohio produced 125,000 gallons of syrup compared to the 100,000 gallons produced this year, which is about average. Each year, the Ohio Maple Producer’s Association sponsors a statewide driving tour. It guides tourists to places where they can experience syrup production during the season. Threse Volkman coordinates the event. She says this year’s tour was thrown off by the season’s early start.

Earlier tapping threw off this season’s tourism

“Normally by March, if you have a normal Northeast Ohio winter, people are getting a little squirrely and want to get out and enjoy, so March is the time they get out. This is the 13th year for the tour, and over the years when everybody slow tourism-wise across the state, wherever maple is promoted we get people out into the woods and sugar houses, we get them into places like Burton for the pancake breakfasts. Last year the weather was too nice and people were a totally different mode. They wanted to work in the year because it was more April weather than March weather.” 

Volkman says she cannot predict what will happen during next year’s season because Mother Nature’s in charge. Extension agent Ober says last winter was wetter than average, followed by a 3 month drought. He says the drought here in Northeast Ohio broke when the rain started in     mid-July. So the maple trees should not be heavily impact by the dry weather.

“Northeast Ohio trees should not be too stressed by the weather, but I would caution producer to maybe not tap as heavily as past years because of the drought. We’re getting a lot of moisture now and if we get heavy snow we’ll be back on track. It’s a different story in southern and western Ohio where it’s still dry, so they may have to consider tree health when they tap.”

But Ober says it’s still not possible to say when the tapping season will start next year, but he’ll be watching.

“Maybe there’s been a trend, especially in the New England states. We may be a little bit earlier here, but not as much. They’ve been tapping decidedly early in New England and they’re more worried about climate change than we are. Is something going on with the extreme weather we’re been having? Yeah, we’re obviously seeing a climate change. Is it something to be concerned with in maple production, probably, but we’ll work through it.”

Related Links & Resources
Burton Chamber of Commerce

Ohio Maple Producers Association

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