Wisconsin Ag News Headlines
Midwest Maple Syrup Producers Adapt to Record Warm Winter, Uncertainty as Climate Changes
Wisconsin Ag Connection - 04/01/2024

The art of maple syrup production flows through generations of Dan Potter’s family history.

His great-grandfather bought the family farm in rural Iowa in the late 1880s and cleared the land for strawberries, clay, and whiskey production. Eventually, he transitioned to making maple syrup to add to his whiskey. That started a 140-year-old tradition that has persisted through the Civil War, the Great Depression, and both World Wars.

Potter opened his own maple syrup company with his wife and three daughters in 2009. Great River Maple, in Garnavillo, Iowa, is now among the state’s most prolific syrup producers.

This year’s record-warm winter caused sap to flow early, bringing challenges for the family-run company. They tapped their first trees on Jan. 22 — more than three weeks earlier than ever before.

“When you take into account that the average season is somewhere around six-and-a-half weeks long,” Potter said, “you’re talking an incredible amount earlier.”

This year’s maple sap season began early for many producers in Upper Midwestern states, who experienced shorter seasons. Some credit those shifts to the year’s record-warm winter. Thanks to the El Niño effect, the season ranked among the top 10 warmest.

But Indigenous and non-Native experts say human-caused climate change also is having varied and unpredictable effects on the maple harvest. Farmers and Indigenous communities whose ancestors have tapped trees since time immemorial are altering their practices and planning for an erratic future.

“It seems like from year to year, the season gets a little bit earlier,” said Theresa Baroun, executive director of the Wisconsin Maple Syrup Producers Association. “But nothing, nothing, nothing like this year. If you talk to many older producers, they’ve never seen anything like this as well. This is just a different, weird year here in Wisconsin.”

Climate effects

Even amid increasingly earlier seasons, this year stood out, said Justin Cain, operations manager of Maple Valley Cooperative, of Cashton, Wisconsin, whose members include more than 40 farmers from Wisconsin, Michigan, New York and Vermont.

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