Real Maple Syrup: America is Sapped, Tapped Out, Done
By Andrew Brundige
SUGAR HILL, NEW HAMPSHIRE – Traditionally, in New England and upstate New York, the last Sunday in March is Maple Syrup Sunday, when sugarhouses across this region open their doors to the public for tours, tastings and demonstrations. But this last Sunday will have been the last. “It’s over,” says Jared Williams, 73, a commercial sapper outside this small town, just northwest of Franconia Notch. “We’re finished. You might say, we’re tapped out. Climate change has done us in.” He shakes his head which, in profile, has a craggy dignity like the Notch’s “Old Man of the Mountain” rock formation, carved by the glaciers. Williams adds, “And since the folks south of us – New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia – got knocked out decades ago, leaving just us, well, that’s it for the U.S. of A. You still want real maple syrup, go talk to the Canucks.
First Erratic, Then Over
Williams, who says he used to run as many as 700 taps on his maple farm, on many of the same trees as five generations of Williams men before him, shows this reporter around, amid the trees, across bare ground. He points to a clearing in which a huge boulder sits. “That’s an erratic,” says Williams. “It’s what you call a rock that’s been brought here by glacial ice. Also what you could call the sugaring seasons this last decade and a half: erratic. With lower and lower yields. And this season barely happened at all.”
He explains that, 55 years ago, when he started sugaring on his own, the season here in northern New England ran six weeks, from late February to early April. As the climate got warmer, the season moved up. But along with warm days, freezing nights are required. And the ground around the maples must stay frozen and snow-packed. “We had those conditions till about fifteen years ago,” says Williams. “Although the six weeks were getting cut down to five and then four and then three. Then it would tease you, give you hope, by going up to four or five, then drop to only two. Erratic.”
Williams continues: “Then, around ’52, we started getting hit by these droughts. Maples aren’t drought-resistant, so that cut down the sap flow. This year, basically, after mid-January, a few days after the sap started running, the nights stayed above freezing. And the bases of the maples – well, you can see – no snow. It’s been like that for two months now. So, no sap flow. I used to get as much as 15 gallons of sap from each tree. Enough to make about a half gallon of syrup. This year, about less than one gallon of sap per tree. Next year…not going to bother.” He waves hand in a circle, indicating his neighbors’ maple farms. “Same with everyone else. We’re all finished.”
Face and Symbol Fall
This reporter follows Jared Williams inside, to where his wife, Beth, has made maple sugar candy. Beth has rosy apple cheeks and a disposition to match. She pushes some of her candy on this reporter who eats it with pleasure. Jared and Beth say they will do okay, they have other resources, maple sugaring was only a part of their income. But, in an unguarded moment, Jared Williams’ face falls – and this reporter thinks of The Old Man of the Mountain whose profile is a symbol of the state of New Hampshire. The profile is still on the state’s license plates and on signs designating the state highways, but some time between midnight and two a.m. on May 3, 2003 the rock formation itself collapsed.