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Mild weather expected to get the sap flowing

This year’s tree tapping ceremony held Feb. 26 produced numb fingers instead of sap, but the warm weather forecasted for this weekend should get the sweet stuff flowing.

Todd Leuty, agroforestry specialist for the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, said he heard reports of small sap flows Feb. 20 and 21 before a winter air mass moved in and dumped several inches of snow on Waterloo Region.

Kitchener-Conestoga MPP Leeanna Pendergast and Woolwich Mayor Bill Strauss tap a maple tree under the watchful eye of Albert Martin on Feb. 26. This year’s tree tapping ceremony – held at George Martin’s farm on Apple Grove Road – produced no sap, but warm weather this weekend should see plenty of the sweet stuff in advance of the Elmira Maple Syrup Festival Mar. 27.
Kitchener-Conestoga MPP Leeanna Pendergast and Woolwich Mayor Bill Strauss tap a maple tree under the watchful eye of Albert Martin on Feb. 26. This year’s tree tapping ceremony – held at George Martin’s farm on Apple Grove Road – produced no sap, but warm weather this weekend should see plenty of the sweet stuff in advance of the Elmira Maple Syrup Festival Mar. 27.

Most producers don’t bother tapping for warm spells in January and February, preferring to wait until the bigger runs in March and early April. Taps have a lifespan of five or six weeks, so syrup producers try to time their tapping to get the best flows.

Producers are hoping for another season like last year, which saw record sap flows. Syrup production in Canada increased to 9.1 million gallons in 2009 from 4.9 million gallons in 2008. In Ontario, production increased to 417,000 gallons from 262,000 in 2008.

However, last year’s bumper crop wasn’t enough to build up syrup supplies after poor seasons in 2007 and 2008, while demand was higher than ever.

“Everyone’s hoping for a good year,” Leuty said. “If we can draw out the kind of weather we’re having this week, if we can have that for the whole month of March and even early April, that would be perfect.”

There are about 2,600 maple syrup producers in Ontario, with Waterloo-Wellington and Lanark County in eastern Ontario being the highest-production regions. Ontario’s production, however, is a fraction of Canada’s output as a whole; Quebec boils up 91 per cent of Canadian maple syrup.

In addition to keeping an eye on the thermometer, syrup producers are also monitoring their woodlots for signs of the Asian long-horned beetle. The invasive insect, native to China, Korea and Japan, attacks and kills broadleaf trees like maple, elm and willow.

“It has a number of other hosts, but it prefers sugar maples,” Leuty explained.

The larvae of the Asian long-horned beetle feed on the trunk and limbs of the tree and can kill healthy trees in a season or two. If the beetle were to spread, it could lay waste to the maple syrup industry.

The beetle was found in Toronto and Vaughan in 2003 and was contained by destroying infected trees and all susceptible trees within a 400-metre radius. Now producers are keeping a watchful eye on an outbreak in Massachusetts, where officials have removed 26,000 trees and are monitoring a 75-square-mile area.

“Everyone knows the beetle doesn’t respect borders, so if it gets out of hand there, it can move,” Leuty said.

Over the longer term, producers are also trying to gauge what impact climate change might have on maple syrup. Climate change could mean warming and a shift north; it could also mean more erratic and extreme weather patterns.

Information sessions and workshops on maple syrup almost always include a speaker on climate change, but at this point it’s largely guesswork, Leuty said.

“We’ll have a few bad years for syrup production and everyone starts looking at climate change, and then there are a few good years and everyone forgets,” he said.

And when it comes to what type of season 2010 will be, producers all have the same response: “Ask me in May.”

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