OK. Enough bucolic wandering through the forest to identify the best trees for sugaring. Enough feel-good homemade maple syrup peaches. It’s Monday morning. Grab a cup of coffee. Let’s talk about climate change like we said we would.
No, it’s OK! This is NOT going to make you feel like crawling under a rock. It’s more likely to make you want to take a walk at lunch or cause you to rubberneck on your commute home to evaluate species diversity, look for snags and riparian buffers and wonder about the slope and aspect of your neighborhood’s topography.
Hang in there. I didn’t know about any of these things either, until I accepted the gracious invitation of the Orange County Maple Sugar Makers Association to show off the Sapling Evaporator at their annual meeting last January. There I met Nancy Patch, County Forester for Franklin and Grand Isle Counties here in Vermont. Nancy gave a great keynote speech about climate change and maple sugaring over a (very yummy) pot luck lunch featuring this amazing shortcake slathered in maple cream:
These distracting maple shortcakes have nothing to do with climate change.
Oops. Lost my way, there. In addition to remembering the wonderful food, I took away some interesting information about how climate change will affect maple sugaring and some important tips about caring for my sugar woods from Nancy’s talk. I interviewed Nancy recently to refresh my recollection, and this is how it went:
Kate: One of the things that I recall from your talk, and one of the things that I’ve told my readers, is that Red Maple trees are going to fare better than Sugar Maple as the climate changes. Which means that backyard sugar makers of the future will still be able to sugar, but might have to work a little harder. Now that I’ve read Increasing Forest Resiliency for an Uncertain Future, however, I’m not sure. Will you explain?
Nancy: Sure. The Sugar Maple is a “Goldilocks” tree. Sugar Maples require soils rich in calcium and magnesium with the right moisture content, enough snow cover to protect its sensitive roots from freezing in the winter, and particular temperatures in order to regenerate. This is where climate change comes in.
The Red Maple is a genetically diverse tree that can thrive in a wider range of situations and has a much wider geographical range. The Red Maple can thrive in acidic soil or on ledge, in swamps and can handle drought conditions, for example.
Neither the Sugar Maple nor the northern hardwood forest in which it grows are going to disappear in the foreseeable future, but climate change – including warming temperatures, shrinking snow cover, and the increase in the incidence and severity of ice storms – will put stress on the Sugar Maple’s ability to thrive and reproduce outside of areas with optimal soil and moisture content, causing it to be out-competed by other species, including the Red Maple.
Kate: So climate change is not going to damage existing trees as much as it is going to make it hard for them to reproduce?
Nancy: Right. Reproduce and compete.
Kate: OK, so how will climate change affect the business of sugar making?
Nancy: It has already. Sugar making is a responsive industry that has long dealt with the reality of climate change. Already, professional sugar makers tap earlier [rising temperatures mean earlier springs] and use tubing systems that keep the wound in the tree open to accommodate the uncertainty of the season.
Kate: How will climate change affect the business of sugar making in the future?
Nancy: We really don’t know. It is always important when talking about climate change to note that we really don’t know what is going to happen. We don’t completely understand how trees adapt. And adaptation does not necessarily take forever. Another thing we don’t understand about trees is how they communicate with each other. So keeping the forest’s options open is the best we can do, and this means species diversity [number and abundance of species in the woods] and structural diversity [diversity of tree age and size, and existence of openings in the canopy, standing dead and logs on the ground] in the woods.
Kate: How do we keep a forest’s options open for sugaring?
Nancy: One of the things I have been pushing people to do is to keep and cultivate Sugar Maples in places where the conditions are really optimal – places where slope [the pitch of the land] or aspect [the compass direction that a slope faces] keep temperatures down, and places with mineral-rich soil and the right moisture content. Beyond that, it comes down to protecting or creating diversification among trees and other species, and ensuring your sugar woods has trees of many different ages so that when disturbance occurs there is a replacement forest.
Kate: What can backyard sugar makers do to make sure that future generations can continue to enjoy the hobby they love?
Nancy: The first thing I would tell a backyard sugar maker to do is to remove invasive species annually by cutting, pulling or burning them (when snow is on the ground and it is safe to do so). The big three in sugaring country are buckthorn, honeysuckle and barberry. This will go a long way in protecting the forest habitat, which increases forest resiliency, which means healthy sugar woods. Big producers may have too much land to completely eradicate invasive species, but someone with a ten-acre plot, for example, can handle it, and even work with their neighbors to increase the impact of their work.
The second thing I would tell them to do is to look at the diversity of trees in the 250 acre area that includes and surrounds their property, and try to figure out how close it is to containing an ideal suite of tree species for their type of woods. A county forester or extension service may be helpful there. If there’s diversity already, do what you can on your own land to maintain it. If diversity does not exist, you can plant trees or expand on what you have already by, for example, giving a mature oak some space to thrive and reproduce by thinning around it.
Finally, I would tell them to protect or create the potential for diversity for other species, including wildlife, by leaving standing dead trees [called “snags”], leaving dead logs on the ground, and, where bodies of water exist, ensuring that riparian buffers [forested area providing shade] are in place.
See? That wasn’t so bad! Now get out there and take a walk, snap some pictures, and tell us what you find. I’ll be sure to do the same, and report back. Until then, I'll be looking for that maple shortcake recipe to share . . .
One America Homemade Maple Syrup Peaches
I know, I know. In my last post, I promised to discuss the effects of climate change on maple sugaring. And I'm sure you were really looking forward to that. But I hope you will agree with me that a blog-promise is somewhat less reliable than other varieties. I'll get there. (I promise!)
What happened was that my peach tree nearly toppled over with the weight of its fruit this weekend. Which was a big surprise, as I recall my disbelief at the point of its purchase two years ago that one could even grow peaches in Vermont. Who had ever heard of a Zone 4 peach?
Anyway, this happy development disrupted my fledgling blog-flow (get inspired of a Friday, write over the weekend, post on Monday). And all I did all weekend - besides gardening, chicken tending, laundry, house cleaning, getting the in-law suite ready for the in-laws, cooking, baking, painting my daughter's bedroom, and parenting while my husband made Sapling Evaporators - was think about these lovely peaches. And not climate change. Rather like reading a novel instead of your history textbook. Or eating cake instead of bread. Or having a weekend instead of continuing to work. Sort-of.
So, having not done my climate-change homework, I’ll pass this recipe on, instead. Climate change is sill going to be there next week. I'm pretty sure.
Peaches have a special place in my heart. I spent part of my childhood in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia. My brothers and I had a babysitter named Linda. She had a homestead way out in Harper's Ferry, where she raised a gaggle of boys. (You may have read about Harper's Ferry in that history textbook.) Linda kept to the house unless someone needed her, but us kids had free reign of the farm. And the peaches. The kind you can barely eat for juiciness. The kind that gets all over your face no matter how tidy you're trying to be. We had peaches many ways at Linda's. But one of the best, on a hot day, was frozen and blended with a little water. Linda called it the peach freeze. It was the taste of summer.
And then there were Grandma Jeanette’s canned peaches. Served for dessert whenever we were in Aberdeen. Perfect halves, flawlessly skinned, in heavy syrup, preserved in half-gallon mason jars. Grandpa Stan fetched them from the cellar slowly and carefully while we anticipated. Brought the South Dakota summer to any time of the year, over the years, first for my husband, then for us both, and then for our family.
So I picked my peaches this weekend – every last one of them – eating some while still warm from the sun. They weren’t quite the West Virginia peaches or South Dakota peaches of my youth. Nor are they Pennsylvania or Georgia peaches, I’d imagine. That’s what you get with a Zone 4 peach, I’ve heard. But they are fresh. And, this weekend, I canned them in my own homemade maple syrup. Bringing a little Vermont to the peach. Expressing solidarity with peach country. Sending a bit of sweetness South and West, into the past, and into the future.
Here's to hoping someone remembers my peaches fondly someday and passes it on.
One America Homemade Maple Syrup Peaches
Wash your peaches and freeze for at least one hour on a jelly-roll pan or other sheet pan with a lip. Run under cold water and slip off the skins. Half and pit the peaches, placing them directly into clean jars. Boil a mixture of four-parts water to one-part homemade maple syrup. Pour boiling mixture over peaches to 1/2" of top. Affix lids. Can in a hot water bath for 20 minutes, cool, and store.
The Maple Sugaring 101 Tree Identification Tool Kit: A Book and A Pair of Sunglasses
Atutumn is coming. And for us Vermonters, that means that the trees have gone from just-past-vibrant green to showing a little color. Especially in the hills.
If you are a beginner maple sugar maker, like me, this is the absolute best time to get into the woods and find your best maple trees for sugaring: your sugars and your reds. Leaf color can help with identification, and once the leaves fall, forget it. Time to get moving!
There are about a zillion resources for tree identification, especially online. There’s probably “an app for that,” too. But I'm partial to books. So, this weekend, somewhere in between pulling out the bolted lettuces, putting up beans and corn, and planting that plum tree we’ve been meaning to get into the ground, I grabbed a volume and took a little walk.
We sugar mostly with red maples. The sugar content of the sap is lower, so it takes a bit more work, but the syrup tastes just the same. And reds are what we have. So we use them.
Red maples are also called “swamp maples.” They live in swamps, bottomlands and uplands in moist soils. They are hearty trees, grow to 50-70 feet tall, and presumably get their name either from the scarlet color they turn in the fall, the color of the winged seeds they produce in the springtime, or both.
Red maples will tolerate a wider range of conditions than the sugar maple, including variations in the climate, so even for us amateur makers, it’s worth knowing your reds, even if you have plenty of sugars. Science suggests they will fare well despite our warming climate. So, as it happens, there’s a little good news to take with the bad.
The leaves of a red maple are from 2 to 6 inches wide. They look to me like they are 3 lobed rather than 5 lobed (lobes are the sections of the leaf), although technical definitions seem to allow for both. And they have a saw-toothed jagged edge to them with not a smooth curve anywhere. For me, that's the key.
The Leaf of the Red Maple: Red Maples are Also Tapped to Make Maple Syrup
Our sugarbush is very dense, so most of the leaves are far enough up in the air that I have to squint a bit to see them. But, because of the time of the year, I was able to find a few leaves around the base of my reds as proof that I had squinted effectively. And, as you can see, some were well on their way to scarlet.
And then there are the sugars. Sugar maples, so named because of the high concentration of sugar in their sap, grow even bigger than red maples, 60-80 feet, and naturally occur in rich, moist soils in uplands and valleys. In addition, however, sugar maples have been planted along roadways and at the edges of pasture lands for hundreds of years, and can still be found thus anywhere that farming is or ever was.
Sugar Maples are the Best Trees for Maple Syrup Making
The leaf of a sugar maple is 3-5 inches wide and has 5 lobes, with a smooth, curved edge where the leaf of the red maple is jagged. This time of the year, sugar maples are likely to look multicolored, showing green as well as hints of yellow, orange and/or red as their chlorophyll recedes.
The few sugar maples we have are out in the open, and so have developed a crown that extends far enough toward the ground so that I don’t have to squint or forage for ground-leaves to make my identification. The sugar maple is so iconic. It's as easy as that.
The Leaf of the Sugar Maple
So if you’re thinking about sugaring next spring, don’t underestimate the value of taking a short stroll through your woods to map out your sugar stand, now. Much like the beans and corn, this task just won't wait.
If your family is anything like ours, no matter how many gallons of maple syrup you made on your backyard boiler last Spring, it has long since been consumed by the time Fall rolls around. Maple rationing is hard! Time is tight. The kids are hollering for pancakes. And you keep forgetting to visit your local sugarhouse. Are you with me? You are at the supermarket, standing in front of that teeny-tiny local-food section, perusing your options. You see a bottle labeled “100% Organic Maple Syrup.” We’ve all been there.
“But, wait! Isn’t all Maple Syrup Organic,” you think, “regardless of whether it’s certified?”
“Not necessarily,” says Susannah Walsh Daloz, Former Director of UVM Farmer Training Program, Candidate for Masters in Food Systems at UVM, and our favorite go-to for all questions agricultural. That’s because “organic standards,” says Daloz, “aren’t just about avoiding synthetic pesticides and herbicides, practices that may not generally be used in maple syrup production,” but also regulate how farmers manage the land.
Sure enough, a quick Google search turned up this document, Vermont Organic Famers’ “Guidelines for Certification of Organic Maple Syrup & Sap.” According to Daloz, this was the right place to be, because Vermont Organic Farmers, LLC, an arm of NOFA Vermont, has the power to certify agricultural products, including maple syrup, as UDSA Organic. (There are similar setups in other states and regions around the country.) And, sure enough, there are LOADS of requirements that have nothing to do with prohibiting synthetic pesticides, herbicides, synthetic tree-marking paint, or the synthetic defoamers that can be used in boiling. In fact, in eleven pages, approximately ten pages deal with all sorts of other stuff having to do with sugarbush management.
For example, there is a group of requirements devoted to maintaining or achieving species diversity, including requirements that a sugar stand be composed of at least 20% non-sugar maple trees (red maple count), and that the genetic diversity of other “plants, animals and microorganisms” in the stand be protected.
There are requirements about how to ensure sugar-stand regeneration through management of mixed-age stands (sugar stands that have sugar maples of varying ages) or conversion of even-aged stands.
The organic sugar maker must abide by certain tree-thinning and harvesting techniques when removing trees from the stand, must minimize the damage such activities may cause to surrounding trees, and is prohibited from removing debris from the stand. In fact, “material smaller than 3 inches must be left in the woods.” According to the requirements, “[d]eviation from this standard could result in loss of certification.” Wow!
And then there are rules about managing the number, placement and condition of forest roads, limiting erosion of forest soils, maintaining water quality, and ensuring that any grazing animals permitted entry into the bush don’t cause lasting damage to it.
Guidelines as to how to tap the trees (as shallow as possible), where to tap the trees (staggered both vertically and horizontally from prior taps by specific distances) how many taps can be placed in a tree (never more than 2) and whether taps must be removed season-to-season (yes, always, no matter what) are quite lengthy, as well.
And we haven’t even gotten to sap storage (no galvanized anything, ever), syrup making (lead-free soldered boiling equipment only), bottle labeling (don’t get me started) and proper washing and disinfection of all of the above (summary: no matter what, rinse, rinse, rinse)!
At this point, I’m wondering if ANY maple syrup is organic unless labeled as such. And yet, I’ve spoken with several smallish sugar makers who claim that, aside from maybe laying off the synthetic defoamers, their farming techniques did not have to change at all in order to meet organic requirements, which they were happy enough to comply with in exchange for the premium they can charge for their product. Were they selling me magic beans, or what? Believable?
“I would absolutely credit those statements,” says Daloz. “Unlike other food production contexts, it was probably never part of the industrial model to use non-organic practices in the first place. The organic movement itself was organized for the purpose of forcing a shift away from practices that were likely generally not applied to traditional maple production.”
And, again, I say “wow!” That’s a whole lot of work to ensure a healthy, sustainable product. I guess that’s farming! Daloz agrees.
“It will be interesting to see,” adds Daloz, “as the maple industry shifts and consolidates, as new pests appear, and as the climate changes, whether non-organic practices become more prevalent in the industry. If they do, organic certification will be even more of a differentiator than it is today” she concludes.
So where does that leave me? Back in the supermarket, with a list as long as my arm. And I haven’t even picked out the maple syrup yet. Such is life. Wish me luck deciding!