Somerset County could become the last bastion of maple syrup producers in New England
The iconic maple syrup industry is an economic engine in New England and Maine, the third largest producer in the United States. But rising temperatures and erratic sap flows pose great challenges and foreshadow even bigger changes.
If scientists’ predictions are correct, the northernmost reaches of Somerset County could become one of the last strongholds of syrup production in the region.
Donna and Jereme Frigon are aware of these grim predictions even though their company, Gray Jay Mapleworks, is better protected from climate change. The couple rent a sugar bush from the state Department of Conservation in Sandy Bay Township, just a few miles south of the Canadian border.
This is their sixth year in business, and it’s a big step up from their humble beginnings logging their grandparents’ trees.
“I think our best season was six gallons,” Donna Frigon said. “And that was a lot for the number of trees we had. I think we only had 20 trees.
The Frigons now produce about 3,200 gallons of syrup from the 8,000 taps that criss-cross this remote sugar bush. They are one of many producers in northern Somerset County, the largest producing county in all of the United States.
“In southern Maine, we’re pretty big,” Frigon said. “But here there are only a few who are smaller than us.”
A tap and bucket departure
Gray Jay is also a different type of operation than what people typically see in southern Maine, where maple syrup production is often a shoulder-season crop for local farms and an attraction for families.
The Frigons manage it alone with the help of their two children. The scale of the operation is immense and it is far more mechanized than many operations in southern Maine and New England.
When the sap is running like it did in mid-March — when temperatures in Sandy Bay Township hit nearly 60 degrees — the couple is working virtually non-stop.
“I have to check my records,” Frigon said between periods of evaporator monitoring and sap evaporation that can be affected by the slightest change in barometric pressure. “But I feel like it’s too early to make that much syrup.”
Jereme kept a close eye on the reverse osmosis system which extracts around 75% of the water and minerals from the sap, helping to reduce the amount of water that needs to be boiled off to get the sweet, sticky stuff.
“You have an idea of what you need to do to keep up and there are nights where we don’t get much sleep,” said Jérôme Frigon. “There are nights when you don’t sleep at all.”
And when they do, they sleep in the sugar shack where they’ve built a three-story bunk bed.
Sleeping quarters are common for operations here. Arnold Farms, located just across Route 201, houses accommodation for teams of migrant workers from Guatemala. They help adjust the 80,000 taps that deliver sap through five video-monitored pumping stations and into the sugar shack through six miles of underground piping. The workers built a makeshift soccer field out back, using branches as goals.
Arnold Farms is owned by Claude and François Rodrigue, a father-son duo. It is one of many Canadian producers operating in the region. Some are here because they once worked as loggers in the Maine woods. Others because producing syrup here means not having to do so under the strict quotas and restrictions set by Les Producteurs acericoles du Québec, an organization sometimes compared to the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, or OPEC. Like OPEC, the organization of Quebec syrup producers has an outsized effect on fixing and stabilizing maple syrup market prices.
Operations like this are already vital to Maine’s position as the third-largest syrup producer in the United States, behind Vermont and New York.
They could also become key to the industry’s survival in the face of climate change.
Tightening ‘maple belt’
Scientists like Andy Whitman of the environmental group Manomet believe the area where sugar maple trees can survive and thrive is shrinking.
“Clearly it is moving north, and it will continue to move north,” he said. “Northern Maine will still be in that belt 50 to 100 years from now. But southern Maine won’t.
Whitman’s assessment largely aligns with a 2019 report by the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and the US Geological Survey which predicts that maple syrup production in most of New England will be cut in half by the end of the century, with the exception of places like North Somerset.
The problem for growers in southern Maine and New England is erratic winter weather and shortened sap seasons. Whitman said researchers are already seeing the effects on small growers, who may find it increasingly difficult to produce enough syrup to justify the costs of producing and harvesting the sap.
At the same time, climate change and extreme weather events are making the region increasingly inhospitable for sensitive sugar maple trees to grow and thrive, according to Aaron Weiskittel, associate professor of forest biometrics at the University of Maine.
Weiskittel was part of a team of researchers who, four years ago, analyzed decades of U.S. Forest Service forest inventory and analysis data. He found that aggressive and resilient young American beech trees outperform sugar maples in several areas of New England and that the trees are well positioned for climate change.
“I would say that the maple, the sugar maple, is the most sensitive [of native hardwoods],” he said.
Red maples are also resilient, but some growers find the sap less desirable.
For sugar maples in the south of the region, the longer winters of bare soil expose root systems to wide variations in temperature—extreme freezes or mid-winter thaws.
Jason Lilley, a researcher at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, said it’s widely accepted in the industry that climate change is affecting syrup production, which is only tied to weather conditions.
He said sap season is coming earlier and ending earlier, especially in southern New England, where the freeze-thaw cycle that allows for good sap flows is increasingly erratic and forces producers to make difficult choices.
“So it’s this very fine line of, should we be tapping early and catching those first two runs and potentially missing out on how much we might get at the end, or not?” he said.
Lilley said northern Maine seems more insulated from this kind of variability, but there is still concern that extreme weather events like drought could also affect the health of maple trees and the quality of the sap they produce.
He said Maine growers last year didn’t see a big drop in sap production, but the sugar content was significantly lower than normal, which meant they had to boil more sap to extract the syrup.
The working hypothesis is that the extreme drought of the previous two years has stressed the maple trees, “so that there is less photosynthesis, less sugar production from photosynthesis and then higher sap sugar content. weak,” he said.
Snow accumulation can help protect sugar maple root systems, and there is plenty of it in Sandy Bay Township.
More than two feet remained in most areas as of mid-March, even after three straight days of mild weather.
But the region is still experiencing the drought conditions experienced by southern Maine in 2020.
Some attribute last year’s sap production to drought.
“Lots of sap, low sugar, for some reason,” said Bill Jarvis, who manages the land where Arnold Farms is located. The landowner rents the maple grove to the Rodriques. Timber harvesting is done on other sections.
Jarvis took crews out of the woods earlier and more frequently because mud season arrived earlier.
“As I said, the big sugar producers haven’t seen it as much, but I see it on the timber harvesting side,” he said.
The Rodrigues don’t care so much about the weather.
“I would say no. It’s different from one year to another,” said Claude Rodrigue. “We’re finishing this late now [as] 20 years ago. But every year is different. But more or less it looks the same.
The Rodrigues also have plenty of sap and plenty of cheap energy to process it; Claude succeeded in obtaining permission to operate a small transmission line that provides hydroelectricity from Canada.
The Rodrigues said the sugar content of last year’s sap never exceeded 2%, the industry standard.
But there are positive signs for this year’s first big upswing in mid-March. The sugar content of this batch of sap is already up since the start of the day.
“But I don’t know about tomorrow. We get it as we go,” said François Rodrigue. “We have to be very adaptable to anything that can happen.”
The same goes for Maine’s $50 million maple syrup industry, which could be concentrated in areas like Sandy Bay Township.
The producers here are preparing for the changes.
“What we’re expecting is more sap at some point because maybe our season is getting shorter or the warm-ups are quicker,” said Donna Frigon of Gray Jay Mapleworks. “And we’ve seen some of those races in recent years.”
The changes have so far not altered Frigons’ expansion plans.
In fact, growing syrup production in this part of the state could be key to the industry.
Bill Patterson, deputy director of the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands, said the state currently allows syrup production at two properties in the area, including the Gray Jay Mapleworks operation.
He said he did not believe the state originally intended syrup production as a use while conserving the property. But he said the state may add it as a consideration on other conservation properties in the area.
Manomet scientist Whitman said maple trees in this region of the state could become even more productive as the effects of climate change worsen conditions in other parts of the state.
“I think Maine can continue to produce as much maple syrup as it has in the past,” he said. “It’s just that he will do it in a different place.”
Places like North Somerset.
This article is published through a media partnership with Maine Public.