What Will the Ohio Maple Syrup Industry Look Like in 2050?

(This is a follow-up post to the July 16th post on leasing and evaluating maple stands. It contains more questions than answers.)

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I had a chance to read in depth the latest edition of The Maple News. What caught my eye was an article about a recent study concerning the health of maple trees in the Adirondacks Mountains of upstate New York. The article documented the relatively slow growth of sugar maples in that region. For many Ohioans reading articles like these, the importance does not always hit home because the article is about someone else’s problem faraway from the local sugar bush. So why should we be concerned? The answer to that question became all too clear after attending a two-day planning meeting for woodlot management at Holden Arboretum.

Holden Arboretum is a nationwide-recognized premier arboretum covering 4000 acres with all types of hard and softwood tree species. Holden’s tree research is highly respected around the world, and the property includes several old sugar bushes and a grove of super sweet trees. One of Holden’s latest projects is entitled the “Working Woods”. It is designed to examine how local woodlots are managed, not only for timber but also non-timber forest products such as maple syrup. The initial meeting was more of an introduction to the project but also provided a chance to share opinions on the subject of forest management. The group sitting at the table included arborists and foresters from several states, commercial foresters, experts from state agencies, and members of the Holden staff. I was fortunate to be selected to represent Ohio’s maple syrup industry and what I took home from the discussion changed my perspective on forest management.

For several years now, one of my OSU Extension projects in Geauga County has been to examine what is happening to the maple tree resource in NE Ohio. This project entitled, “Preserving Sugar Maple for the Next Generation”, is finding out that NE Ohio maple syrup production may be entering a new phase. After World War II just about every farm (most small dairy farms) had a sugar bush. The sugar bushes were small and there were many individual sugar camps per square mile. This gave the appearance of an endless supply of maples to tap. Fast track 50 years later to the year 2000, most of the small dairy farms were sold because their owners could not keep pace with the modern expansion of the industry. Many of the sugar bushes were cut down and replaced with housing developments or other land use conversions. Housing development also increases the demand for home furnishings, and one of the most popular furniture hardwoods today is maple. It is no surprise that Ohio has become one of the leading producers of hardwood furniture in the country, and that industry is centered in Holmes County just 60 miles from the Geauga County. Suddenly with a new interest in the maple tree, and it is not only for syrup production, tracts containing old sugar bushes are being harvested at a steady pace to keep up with the furniture industry’s demand. This would be okay if we lived in an area where there were expansive tracts of timber, but we do not. Instead we live in an area where there are small woodlots, 10 to 20 acres that cannot absorb extensive harvest. To make matters worse, the people doing the logging feel that the only economical cut they can make is a clear cut, and whether perception or reality, selective cutting just does not generate enough revenue to bring in a mill. As a result, northeast Ohio has become the poster child for bad logging practices.

One thing I learned at the Holden meeting was that along with increased harvest pressure maples are now under increased environmental pressure from other fronts. We live in a world of invasive species, natural imbalances, and yes the polarizing term, climate change. As the study from the Adirondacks noted, trees that should be thriving are just not growing at the rate they should due to multiple factors. In Ohio we have also seen increased pressure from wildlife and insect damage on the surface and earthworm damage from beneath the soil. Both have led to reduction in the regeneration of young trees to replace the aging trees that will soon be lost. I have been able to document this at Holden Arboretum over the last 8 years. While recently standing in the middle of one of the Holden Arboretum Working Woods demonstration sites (an Old Sugar bush), I was alarmed at the overall lack of regeneration. The question came to mind – If you are unable to regenerate new growth in a well-managed woodlot inside an arboretum, what are the chances of maple trees coming back in a site that had been clear cut for timber production? The answer to that is all too obvious. Only under the best circumstances would a clear cut woodlot spring back into maple production. Unfortunately in northeast Ohio, Best Management Practices in logging are seldom used. This leaves one to ponder – With 60% of Ohio’s maple syrup currently being produced in northeast Ohio, what will the Ohio maple syrup industry look like in 2050? The bigger question is what will be needed to protect the valuable sugar maple resource.

One result coming from the OSU study is that the risks to maple trees are significantly higher on private property than on public property. There are still good healthy stands of maple trees growing in our parks and on other public lands; however, even those maple stands are under constant pressure from overabundant deer herds.

Landowner education is must for managing private woodlots. Education process starts by showing a landowner the range of options available for woodlot utilization and management. Beyond that, landowners still need to be convinced that the best way to make those decisions is to seek professional help before signing any contractual agreements. This means that certified foresters need to appraise the resource. If they decide not to cut and to pursue non-timber forest products, landowners need to contact someone who can show them how to make that happen as well. As Cornell University Maple Specialist Dr. Michael Farrell points out in his book A Sugarmaker’s Companion,

Often the best way to save a maple tree is to utilize it for maple syrup production.

It is not my intention to dictate what a landowner should do with his or her property. Certainly if they have made up their mind to harvest the timber for whatever they are offered, they have the right to do that. The problem is that what looks good on the surface does not always end up that way and there are often regrets when the process is completed. We need to make sure woodland owners are making informed and educated decisions with all the information on the table. Hopefully somewhere along the way, we will see fewer woodlots suffering the brunt of unsustainable logging practices and more going into maple syrup production. In the meantime, enjoy the hours you spend in your sugarbush and never take the sweet gift of making maple syrup from these magnificent trees for granted.

Author: Les Ober, Geauga County OSU Extension

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