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UVM will study the sustainability of Vermont's maple industry, and its impact on the climate

Blue pipes are strung around the trunk of a tree.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
/
Vermont Public
Plastic tubes are strung in this sugarbush in Westminster. A new UVM project will look at the long term sustainability of Vermont’s maple industry.

Vermont’s maple syrup industry has come a long way from the days when horse-drawn sleds carried sap to a wood-fired boiler on the farm.

And as the industry has moved toward larger, commercial operations, the University of Vermont Food Systems Research Center wants to know if all of the plastic tubing and gas-fired boilers that have become ubiquitous across the state are contributing to global climate change.

“Maple is a non-timber forest product that really relies on healthy forests to create this product. And yet the modern industry has really embraced the efficiency of plastic tubing and other technology,” said Mark Isselhardt, extension maple specialist and leader of the maple program with UVM Extension. “And we don’t really know the implications in terms of its sustainability.”

The UVM Proctor Maple Research Center is working with the UVM Food Systems Research Center to come up with ways to measure the sustainability of the maple syrup industry.

The research will include experts in economics, forestry, natural resource management and community development, as well as maple syrup producers.

"The modern industry has really embraced the efficiency of plastic tubing and other technology, and we don’t really know the implications in terms of its sustainability.”
Mark Isselhardt, UVM Extension maple specialist

Isselhardt says The Maple Sustainability Indicators project will look at the environmental impacts, along with economic benefits, and what a healthy maple industry means for the families and communities where the syrup is produced.

“This project is trying to identify the whole system, if you will. Not just production, not just the economics, but what are the implications of modern production on the overall sustainability,” he said.

In 2019, the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources put out a memo which said, “Because sugaring has expanded at a fast pace and scientific research has not kept up, the effects of sugarbush management on the forest (both positive and negative) are not thoroughly studied or understood and warrant investigation.”

Mark Canella, a UVM Extension associate professor who is leading the study, said in a press release that while the maple industry markets itself as a low impact way to work the forest, there have never been long term studies done to determine the impact on climate change.

"This project will take the big step of measuring indicators related to communities, economies, and the environment to develop a more holistic understanding of how maple production impacts people and the planet," Cannella said. “And it will inform the industry of existing successes and weak points that individual producers and broader industry initiatives could focus on improving.”

Vermont’s maple syrup production has increased more than four times in the past 20 years, and Vermont produces about half of the maple syrup that’s made in the U.S.

A graph with a yellow line above a green line indicating maple syrup production in the U.S. and Vermont, respectively.
UVM Extension, USDA
A graph from the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service on maple syrup production in the U.S. and Vermont.

The amount of sap that is sucked out of trees has also risen significantly, and most of that is due to new technologies like high quality plastic lines and reverse osmosis machines.

Allison Hope, the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers’ Association executive director, said while modern technology has allowed sugar makers to increase their yields, her group is supportive of more fully understanding how the forest, and planet, are being affected by the changes in the industry.

“The majority of the innovations that have been created in the maple industry actually benefits forests, and benefit their carbon footprint,” she said “But we’re a curious and innovative bunch, and we’re interested in learning more about what the data says and where the information is at, for sure.”

Hope says the state benefits by healthy forests that can absorb carbon emissions, and at the same time, maple syrup makers are on the front lines of climate change, as warmer winters affect production and erratic weather patterns lead to more downed trees — which make it much harder to maintain a productive sugarbush.

So she says the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers’ Association is taking part in the work to truly understand the sustainability of the maple industry.

“The changes in weather patterns, the erratic weather, all of those things we see as effects of climate change take a toll on what the sugaring season looks like,” Hope said. “So they’re seeing it on the ground every year, and it can certainly wreak havoc [on] the types of forests and land management that they have to do that might differ from what they had to do over time. And it just means they need to be even more industrious and inventive than they already have been.”

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or contact reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman:

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Corrected: December 24, 2023 at 1:07 PM EST
A previous version of this story misstated Mike Isselhardt's title.
Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state. 
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