It’s been a weird winter in New York. Yesterday, I couldn’t feel my face when I walked outside. Today, thick layers of clothing rendered me astraddle as I sweated through my commute. But last week, it was 70-degree warmth that made me sweat. This fickle, disconcerting weather is ravaging a good swath of the Northeast and Midwest—fertile regions for maple syrup harvest. Yes, this means America's supply of maple syrup may be on the decline.
Late last week, Kris Maher of the Wall Street Journalwrote an exhaustive, thorough report on the state of maple syrup harvesters as they brave their way through a winter that, on some days, feels like spring. The article paints a grim picture of the state of this industry in 2017. Farmers speak to Maher about how they’ve reckoned with these conditions, and what this climate may mean for an industry that's grown gingerly over the past decade.
The trouble began in January, when the sap from maple trees began flowing a month earlier than expected due to higher-than-expected temperatures. Maple trees thrive in sub-freezing temperatures overnight, while, during the day, it’s ideal for temperatures to hover in the mid-40s. This kind of weather provokes a freeze-thaw cycle. The dissonance between daytime and nighttime temperatures coaxes sap to travel from the roots of the tree to its upper branches.
But the wild indecision of 2017’s temperature, and its general warmth so far, is compromising this fertility. Sap has been slow to trickle from these trees. Some of the farmers Maher speaks to harbor cautious optimism, saying there's still some time for course-correction if temperatures dip accordingly at night. But chances are growing slim now that it's nearly spring, and temperatures are getting warmer on the whole. Farmers believe maple syrup yields will be down by 75 percent, as compared to last year.
This poses obvious difficulties for farmers whose livelihood is subject to the whims of errant weather. But these conditions could have a domino effect that reaches the consumer pipeline, with prices of that coveted maple syrup rising as demand can’t meet supply. I’m as big a fan of maple syrup as the average person; it works as a great sweetening agent for porridges or pancakes. But I guess it's as good a time as any to cozy up to the alternatives—imagine a drizzle of molasses, a rich compote, a hearty jam on your pancakes.
Honestly, though, I'd prefer to freeze my face off so maple syrup sticks around.
What's your go-to when you can't get maple syrup? Let us know in the comments.
On Black & Highly Flavored, co-hosts Derek Kirk and Tamara Celeste shine a light on the need-to-know movers and shakers of our food & beverage industry.
Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.