By RJ Thompson
Photo courtesy of Sandiwood Farm, Wolcott, VT
I remember the first time I had real maple syrup. I was around the age of ten or eleven and on a ski vacation in Vermont. Like any young skier, I was anxious to put my snow-gear on and run out the door to catch the shuttle to the mountain, but my aunt convinced me I should eat some breakfast before hitting the slopes. That’s when my taste buds were introduced to one of nature’s most splendid treats.
What I experienced next was a life-changing moment. Warm Vermont maple syrup cascaded down upon a heaping stack of steamy buttermilk pancakes as the scents of both collided to form a smell that can only be described as euphoric. I took my first bite and quickly realized something was very different. The pancakes were out of this world! The skiing could wait.
Reflecting on that experience nearly twenty years later, I find myself not only wondering what the heck I had been putting on my pancakes the first ten years of my life, but also what I would do if maple syrup no longer existed as we know it today. Most of us (not me) would probably get by just fine with the artificial high-fructose corn syrup goo that congeals on a plate if you don’t touch it after a few seconds, but some individuals, particularly Vermonters reliant on the maple industry for a big part of their income, may find themselves in hard times.
While 2013 yielded Vermont’s largest maple crop in 70 years. The increase was mostly due to advancements in technology such as maple lines that are far more efficient than the traditional method of gathering sap with metal buckets. Linking multiple trees together with one tube that flows into a large barrel has drastically increased sugaring output; however, this innovation may not be enough to guarantee a perpetual syrup surplus in Vermont.
Why the grim outlook? It turns out global warming may be pushing the sugar maple out of Vermont and into Quebec. That’s right; we’ve managed to alter yet another species’ habitat with climate change. What does that mean for maple sugaring in Vermont and future generations enjoying their first authentic Vermont maple syrup experience? The survey is still out, but there are many scientific computer models that predict sugar maples will virtually disappear from Vermont by the end of the 21st century. As temperatures continue to increase, sugar maples will begin to migrate to more favorable conditions found at higher latitudes and elevations. That means Quebec, the world leader in maple syrup production, will get most of Vermont’s precious sugar maples in less than 100 years.
Humans will always favor the growth of sugar maples because of the tree’s high economic value (maple syrup is nearly worth its weight in gold, so it makes sense to keep these trees around as long as possible). We can alter soils to increase the propagation of sugar maples, but that’s not a sustainable practice. Instead, we must look at the big picture and use Vermont’s maple tree as another symbol to take action against climate change.
If the melting of ice caps, near-extinction of polar bears, increasing sea levels, and higher frequency of natural disasters are not enough, consider the Green Mountain State without maple syrup. Sure, it will still be available from Quebec and other parts of Canada, and it will most likely taste the same as those delicious pancakes I had some twenty years ago, but Vermont will have lost a $40 million industry and one of its sweetest, most delicious treasures. Not to mention, we’ll have to rely on yet another import. So, the next time your pancakes need a lathering in syrup, consider leaving your car and riding your bike to the store to pick up that bottle of gold we call Vermont maple syrup. The effort will be worth it.