From: David Biello, Daily Climate
Published April 6, 2009 09:09 AM

New England's sugar country confronts a bitter future as the climate warms

SABBATH DAY POINT, N.Y. – All farming depends on the weather, but few foods are more dependent on a specific climate than maple syrup. After all, for the sugar maple's sap to run at all requires cooperative weather — freezing nights followed by warmer days.

But thanks to the build-up of invisible greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, those temperature swings don't happen as reliably. At risk is an American tradition that stretches back even before Europeans discovered the "New World."

"Weather controls it all," says Marty Fitzgerald, a fifth-generation sugarmaker in upstate New York.

And, in recent years, the weather has been weird.

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Extracting sap from maple trees — the business of maple sugaring — employs everything from little tin funnels and hanging pails to plastic spigots and light blue tubing that turn the forest into a spider's web of tripwires, often at chest height. Sugar makers collect the sap any number of ways: hustling a pail down the mountainside to the sugar shack, using gravity to deposit it in the holding tanks, even vacuum pumping the sap downhill.

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At the Carney sugarbush — the term of art for a stand of maple trees — in upstate New York, Rick Bartlett splits the difference. While 700 hundred trees bear 1,000 or so metal taps and buckets, centralized collecting bins — plastic garbage cans — connected by tubing dot the mountainside and feed into a 300 gallon collector near the sugar shack where the sap is boiled into syrup by Fitzgerald.

It takes a mature tree — 40 to 50 years old — to produce maple syrup safely. By that age, the sugar maple has reached a diameter of roughly 10 inches and, according to the standard Ontario tapping rule, can handle one tap. For every five inches in diameter the tree grows after that, the rule says, it can handle one more tap.

Even with tubing, only a high price or a deep love can justify all the labor involved. Given that an average maple will produce sap with a sugar content of just two percent — sap right out of the bucket often tastes more metallic than sweet — Bartlett must collect more than 40 gallons of sap to create just one gallon of syrup.

And whether there's any sap to collect depends on the weather.

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