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Mild Ontario winters help yield maple syrup now, but pose a threat down the line, producers worry

Maple syrup producer Kent Breedon is trying to make the most of mild Ontario winters while he still can.

For now, it means tapping season begins early and more opportunity to yield a bigger harvest. But years down the road, it might mean his tree farm in Alliston, Ont., gets tapped out for good. 

“It is concerning that the weather is changing so fast,” said Breedon, who’s been operating Breedon’s Maple Syrup with his wife for the last 28 years.

“If I have grand kids that make syrup, maybe … it’ll be too warm to make.”

Keedon said climate change has made it hard to predict when to ready the machinery and send staff to tap their some 12,000 trees each year. This year, he said the farm started tapping in the beginning of February — the earliest since they started production. 

A man and his son get ready to drill a hole into a maple tree and harvest its sap.
Breedon’s Maple Syrup co-owner Kent Breedon gets ready to tap a maple tree with his son mid-February. The farm started tapping weeks early this year thanks to a mild winter. (Spencer Gallichan-Lowe/CBC)

And he’s not alone. Producers across Ontario are facing with the same problem and are relying on one another for guidance on when to start harvesting, said John Williams, executive director of the Ontario Maple Syrup Producers’ Association.

Since tapping holes only stay open for a limited period of time, farmers don’t want to tap too early or too late or else they could miss out, he said.

“Now everything’s very transient. It’s always changing. You’re never quite sure,” said Williams.

Williams said the industry is in good shape because recent advances in technology and production have helped to offset any instability in weather trends.

But the stability of the industry long-term is still something to “keep an eye on,” he said, with other factors like invasive species and extreme weather phenomena like droughts and storms posing challenges.

“It only stands to reason that we’re going to see less of those sugars available and more stress on the tree if conditions aren’t good for them,” said Williams.

How to protect the industry from climate change

According to David Phillips, senior climatologist for Environment and Climate Change Canada, the ideal weather for tapping is when temperatures reach 5 C during the day and -5 C at night. Williams said there used to be at least a week during previous harvests when farmers would expect and wait for these conditions.

Now, Phillips said producers in the U.S. state of Vermont, along with those in Quebec and New Brunswick, are seeing mild winter seasons as well, with many tapping three weeks earlier than usual.

“It’s a matter of being flexible. It’s being resilient. It’s being adaptable. You have to almost go [with] what Mother Nature’s telling you, when it’s going to give to you,” said Phillips.

Most of the maple syrup in the world is produced in Canada, according to the federal government. Last year, the industry produced a record-high 17.4 million gallons of maple syrup, more than a 50 per cent rise from 2021.

Peter Kuitenbrouwer, a forester and author who’s currently writing about the history of maple syrup, said combating climate change is the solution to protecting the industry.

“This is an iconic industry, something that is so vital to our nation, and it is a huge part of the economy as well. And so I think that we do need to do our part to combat climate change to protect the industry,” said Kuitenbrouwer.

“We can get off of our dependence on fossil fuels. We can become a low carbon economy and try to slow the spread of global warming. You know, that’s the big picture.”

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