What to Expect for the Rest of the 2021 Ohio Maple Season

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?

 Les Ober, Geauga County OSU Extension

The 2020 Ohio Maple Syrup Production Report

Ohio producers enjoyed an almost “normal” season with the exception that everything happened a month early. This year’s long-term winter weather forecast was predicted to be a long, cold, and snowy winter. In the Northeast, that pattern prevailed due to a shift in the jet stream, but Ohio, West Virginia, Indiana, and parts of Pennsylvania were left with a rather mild winter. For the producers who were ready, conditions opened the door for some very good early maple syrup production in February. But the month of March saw an early warming trend that quickly brought the maple syrup season to an early conclusion across the region. Production across the state was all but shutdown by Saint Patrick’s Day. Looking at my records over the last several decades, Saint Patty’s day is circled in red because of the excellent runs occurring on or near that date – not this year. After several years where late tapping resulted in poor seasons, I feel that more producers across the Southern Tier of maple-producing states have learned to adjust their tapping to the weather and not the calendar. Thankfully, many sugarmakers I have talked with tapped at the right time in 2020 and had a very good to excellent season’s production.

Examples of this excellent production can be found across the state of Ohio. James Miller at Sugar Valley Farm set 3200 taps in January and over the 4th and 5th of February he collected over 14,000 gallons of sap. He set a personal best of 332 gallons of syrup. This pattern continued until the first week of March when the flow of sap stopped. Hit with an abnormally dry and warm period that lasted the rest of March, most trees dried up within a week. With the early start and despite the early shutdown, James ended the season with over a half gallon of syrup per tap. This was also the case for his neighbor The Gingerich Family. OMPA President Karl Evens reported a normal crop despite low sap sugar content. Down state producers reported excellent maple producing weather in the month of February. In Central Ohio’s Knox County, the Brown Family at Bonhomie Acres reported a near record crop. Further to the south in Mount Vernon, the Butcher Family set new production records after several years with below average production. Reports coming out of the southern parts of the state report excellent production, color, and flavor. A large percentage of the syrup made from south to north graded Golden and Amber. The flavor of first boils was superb, and low sap sugar content (between 1.3 and 1.6%) did not hamper production like it did back in 2018.

What can we learn from the 2020 season? First and foremost, weather forecasting is an exact science with a lot of room for error. The 2019-20 winter forecast for Ohio was about as far off as you can get; however, for many parts of the Northeast predictions were spot on. Probably the single most valuable tool a producer has to work with is experience. After years of experience making syrup, you just develop a feeling, almost a sixth sense when it is time to tap. The worst thing you can do is to second guess yourself. Wait too long and you can miss crucial runs. Tap too early and you may be headed for an early shutdown with a lot of season left. For sure, once you tapped there is no turning back and you must make the best of it. From that point to the end of the season, how you utilize modern maple technology will determine your level of success. Technology has become the great equalizer when it comes to maple syrup production in the 21st century.

Just as the maple syrup season was ending, COVID-19 cast an ominous shadow across the Buckeye State and the rest of the nation with huge disruptions to the economy. Agricultural sales, and certainly maple, were not immune. Many of the traditional points of sale, such as retail establishments, festivals, and farmers markets, were closed until further notice. Even though maple syrup was disappearing from the shelves of large grocery stores, giving the false appearance of a maple syrup shortage, nothing could be further from the truth. For small to medium size producers, it is a major challenge – near impossible in many cases – to tap into the mega supply chains. Many producers are worried that there will not be a market for their 2020 syrup crop. Hopefully as summer approaches, health regulations will be relaxed and maple producers will once again be able to market their products in traditional venues. Until then stay safe.

Author: Les Ober, Geauga County OSU Extension

2018 Annual Maple Production Results: NASS Survey

2018 was better than the abysmal years of 2016 and 2017, and Ohio production was reported (USDA NASS survey) at 90,000 gallons – good enough for the 8th best state in the nation. Let’s take a deeper dive into the report and see what else we can learn.

In both 2016 (70,000 gallons) and 2017 (80,000), warm short seasons plagued Ohio. Most producers I talked to did not have a great year in 2018, but they at least were more respectable. Respectability comes in the form of a paltry 10,000-gallon increase in production. I know of five producers in NE Ohio that could have accounted for those 10,000 gallons. Now let us look at the number of taps. It remained the same as 2017, 400,000 taps for the entire state of Ohio.  The only believable statistic is the yield per tap of 0.225 resulting from the low sugar content in the sap. Let us compare how neighboring states did. Pennsylvania produced 142,000 gallons, and Michigan produced 125,000 gallons. That has to be a tough pill to swallow for any Buckeye supporter.  The big winner, no surprise – Vermont, cranked out 1,940,000 gallons. New York overcame a lot of cold weather to produce their new high mark of 806,000 gallons, and Maine produced 539,000 gallons, down from 709,000 in 2017, but they experienced a deep freeze late in the season.

If my remarks seem somewhat caustic, I apologize. Yes, you can blame it on the weather or you can blame it on apathy on the part of the producers in their reporting. Unfortunately, it has become a well-known fact that Ohio maple producers do not want to report their production. In addition, it could be the reporting system is partially to blame. Let’s face it, with a large portion of the syrup being produced in the Amish community, and a reporting system that depends more and more on digital technology, there may be a problem. I back this up with the fact that only 400,000 taps were reported, and if that is the case, the number of taps in Ohio has literally stood stagnant for almost ten years. No expansion in Ohio! I flat out do not believe this to be the case. I cannot prove it but I think there are 400,000 taps in northeast Ohio alone.

So why is reporting important and am I justified in my frustrations? If you believe what is reported and you are a maple producer, you are now involved in a stagnant agricultural industry that is going nowhere fast. Whether you the producer believes it or not, that fact does not matter. It is what the local and state governments believe that counts. It is what The Ohio State University, the state’s premier land grant institution, believes that counts. Right now House Bill 66 sits in front of the state legislature. If the bill passes and is signed into law, maple producers would receive a significant reduction in their land taxes. At the very least, the bill’s consideration may change the way counties look at CAUV (Current Agricultural Use Value) for maple producing landowners. In addition, OSU’s College of Food Agriculture and Environmental Sciences is being asked by the Ohio Maple Producers Association to employ additional staff to work with maple producers. Do you think the 2018 USDA NASS report is incentive to act on that request? More than anything else, what kind of message are we sending to Ohio consumers? If all they hear is the negative news of a stagnant industry, will they believe that we have a good supply of maple syrup in Ohio or will they resort to buying Vermont maple syrup off the grocery shelves? It is time that we look at how we measure the value of the Ohio maple syrup industry to Ohio’s overall agricultural economy. As producers, we owe it to ourselves to see that the majority of the syrup we produce goes in the accounting book. The future of the Ohio maple syrup industry may depend on it.

Author: Les Ober, Geauga County OSU Extension