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Looking back on Ohio’s maple syrup season, production was lower than last year, but it could have been a lot worse. The season was short for most Ohio producers lasting 30 days or less. Ohio’s crop came in around 70 to 80 percent of normal overall. Because of the warm weather, syrup generally graded out in the Amber to Dark Robust range. However, there was still a fair amount of Golden made in the northern part of the state. If you look at the markets and what customers seem to prefer, this is right in line with the increasing demand for the darker grades of syrup. The earliest start dates were in the last week of January, but early starters were not rewarded this year. A massive cold air invasion that lasted until the 20th of February delayed tapping across the state. Most producers reported their first boil in the last couple days of February or first couple days of March. For nearly everyone, the season ended by March 25th. It is not often that you see seasons this shortened without a total collapse in production. Over the last several years, there seems to be a drop in the percentage of maple sap sugar as well. Percentages of sap sugar were on the lower end again this year averaging around 1.7 percent sugar.
To have a season end because of a combination of too cold, too hot, and too dry conditions is very unusual, but that is exactly what happened in Ohio. Extreme weather once again was the dominant factor in 2021. The end of 2020 and the beginning of 2021 saw a strong La Nina weather pattern take control of the region’s weather. This resulted in one of the warmest Decembers and Januarys on record. Cold and snow dominated the month of February setting up a chance for a good season even though the start was delayed. When you consider what happened in February, everyone knew this season would be different from the last several. A massive Arctic air mass (Polar Vortex) drove deep into the heartland of America and dominated February, but the prolonged cold did set up some outstanding early sap runs when things finally warmed. Unfortunately, the ideal sugar making weather would be short lived.
Producers soon realized that the dominant warm weather experienced in December and January was not gone. Hello again La Nina! The return of warm weather did kick off a record sap flow that lasted about a week, but Mother Nature teased local maple producers with a very fickle freeze/thaw cycle that showed no signs of sustaining a sap run through the end of March. The final blow came on March 20th. This would be the last freeze followed by 4 days of 70-degree weather. Most of the producers lamented the shortness of the season, but if we are honest with ourselves, the unique combination and variety of weather conditions could have dealt a worse blow to production.
We had an excellent season in 2020 and the demand for syrup was outstanding despite the pandemic. Now hopefully, the 2021 season was good enough to take care of the demand until the 2022 season arrives in 8 or 9 more months.
There is plenty to learn from this video focused on Proctor’s red maple research. How much sap is produced? How sweet is the sap? What sort of quality can be achieved with the syrup? This research has a similar set of questions to the USDA ACER grant we are working on here in Ohio comparing sugar maples to the red x silver hybrids on The Ohio State University-Mansfield campus.
CODIT stands for Compartmentalization of Decay in Trees, and sugar maples are darn good at CODIT! Mark Isselhardt, during the 2021 virtual Ohio Society of American Foresters spring meeting, gave an excellent microscopic and physiological explanation of how maple trees wall off and seal up old tapholes.
Why does understanding compartmentalization matter to a maple producer? Compartmentalization creates the all-important non-conductive wood that sugarmakers try to avoid with each year’s new taphole. And just in case you were wondering – how much does it matter? Through work conducted at University of Vermont’s Proctor Maple Research Center, Mark Isselhardt document sap yield declines of 70-75% when a taphole intersects non-conductive wood.
Please enjoy this 1-hour presentation led by Kathy Smith, Les Ober, and Gabe Karns. This opportunity was made available through the Woodland Stewards Friday in the Woods webinar series. Nearly 150 attendees listened to a wide coverage of beginner maple topics followed by a full hour of Q & A that ranged from more technical aspects of boiling and filtering and processing syrup to more inquisitive investigations of why the freeze-thaw cycle is necessary for making sap flow and if tapped wood has any market potential as lumber.
Join our own Les Ober and Mike Rechlin to learn about maple syrup quality standards along with the ins and outs of syrup grading Thursday evening 7 PM on April 15th. Register HERE!
Watch this time lapse video of maple research taking place at the Ohio State Sugarbush located on the OSU Mansfield Campus.
Across 13 racks with 5, 6, or 7 canisters each, the OSU maple team emptied sap to monitor individual tree yield and sap sugar content…daily! The 75 research canisters will help us answer questions about how red x silver hybrid trees (Acer freemanii or “rilver” for short) compare to sugar maple production standards. The PVC canisters are a new design engineered by the team, and vacuum consistently achieved levels in the 22-25 pounds range. A drill pump mounted on a standard cordless drill boosted our sampling efficiency, and a digital Misco refractometer handled sugar readings.
While the data won’t be formally analyzed for a bit, we were surprised just how variable individual trees performed based on sap volume as well as sap sweetness. A couple trees achieved sugar content readings over 3 even at the end of the season. While other trees struggled to break 1.2 or 1.3% all season. For yield, 2-3 gallons a day was average for some trees. Normal for others amounted to just 1 or 2 quarts. The team is pulling down the research equipment now for off-season storage.
Stay tuned for updates.
Just like snowflakes no two maple seasons are exactly alike. No question about it, this season fooled me. After about 5 years of early tapping, along comes 2021. During December and January, we experienced above normal temperatures leading to what many believed would be one more in a string of early tapping seasons. Tapping in January has become almost routine across Ohio. However, just like a deck of playing cards, every deck has 2 jokers. This winter season we had two meteorological jokers.
The first was the presence of a strong La Nina with its trademark warmer and wetter weather conditions. Hidden in the background far to the North was the second joker – the always volatile and never popular polar vortex. A polar vortex is always a possibility during the winter months. You never know when the jet streams will line up just right and push Artic air southward into our region. This year we did not experience the full brunt of the vortex like we did in 2014. The coldest air stayed well to the west of Ohio. However, we did experience a cold spell that dominated 20+ days of February.
As result of the persistent polar vortex, the start of the 2021 maple season was pushed back until the last week of February and first couple days of March. Even southern Ohio producers were forced to tap two to three weeks later than normal. The first of March is not historically an abnormally late starting time for maple season in Ohio. The one dominant factor that makes this season different is that our weather is still being somewhat controlled by a strong La Nina weather pattern. The threat of an early warm-up and above normal temperatures are real. And the first indication of that was the stretch of 60-70 degree temperatures experienced during the middle of the second week of March. This was enough to trigger budding in red maples and silver maples of southern Ohio.
At the same time, many sugar camps in northeast Ohio set one day records for syrup production. Sap flows were exceptional after the long cold spell of February. As of March 12th, the same camps are reporting a half crop entering the third week of March. The above normal temperatures experienced at the end of the second week, pushed the season close to the brink. Conditions also caused a dramatic change in syrup grade, and Dark Robust and even Dark Strong profiles have mostly displaced the Golden grade of early season.
The next two weeks will determine the outcome of the maple season in Ohio. OSU Climatologist Aaron Wilson is predicting a mixed bag of weather conditions for the rest of the month. There will be some below freezing temperatures but nothing extreme. For southern Ohio, the trend is for slightly above normal and for northern Ohio – normal temperatures. Again, we may or may not see those colder low temperatures needed to reset the trees and delay budding. What is also troubling is the lack of moisture. 2021’s recent precipitation trend is not typical for a La Nina year, and drier than normal conditions are slowly creeping into Ohio. We need precipitation, snow preferred, to keep the sap flowing, but that key factor is largely missing in the forecast for northern Ohio. At this stage, we need a hybrid of the two jokers to keep this season productive.
I will keep my prediction for the rest of March to myself, goodness knows the first two months of 2021 fooled me. That said, I will be able to confidently predict the outcome the 2021 maple season in Ohio on the 15th of April. What is it they say about hindsight?
Personal point of pride to share this photo of my 9 year old daughter Raelyn holding her first ever recorded datasheet. She persevered for 4 hours of research last Sunday afternoon and evening to help me empty 75 sap chambers during a small sap run. It has been a true team effort to pull off the ACER research project! It seems uncertain right now just long the 2021 season will or will not last, but regardless, the 3 years of this project will allow us to answer some interesting and important questions for Ohio maple.
Despite being virtual due to COVID-19, 2021 Ohio Maple Days – or more accurately Ohio Maple Day sans the “s” – was a success. The audience, two hundred or so strong, heard presentations on tapping and updates from our ACER grants in addition to how production might be increased with red maple. A big thanks to this year’s speakers and an extra round of applause for the committee who worked hard on an event that looked quite a bit different than in years past. One silver lining to having a virtual event is that the sessions are easily recorded.
Visit the Ohio Woodland Stewards Maple page and scroll to the bottom of that webpage to access the different presentations. Let us know what you think and send us any questions, comments, concerns, or suggestions to talk topics for next year!