Magnolias, Maple Syrup and Climate Change

No news that the weather is pretty strange lately and that includes in the Hudson Valley, where we’re amassing broken records at a record-breaking pace: the hottest March, the hottest first quarter, and most recently, the hottest April 15th, when it was 91. Another all-timer (at least at our house) is the annual magnolia trashing, this year the earliest by a country mile.

blooming pink  magnolia (soulangeana)

Magnolia in usual late April mode

The pattern itself is always the same: 1) multi-week warm spell, 2) magnolia blooms, 3) seasonally-appropriate frost comes, 4) flowers turn brown. But it used to happen between late April and early May. Then the whole sequence moved back to April.

In 2012, all March. Bloom started around the 10th and was thoroughly whacked when the temperature dropped to 25 degrees on the night of the 26th.

frost damaged magnolia soulangeana

April 18th, three weeks and change after the frost - just a few late-opening dots of pink.

Meanwhile, the combo of February and March was the 3rd driest on record and April is not shaping up well.

I could go on, among other things airing the usual caveat that this is weather, not climate. But I’d rather cut to this not-climate’s effect on the maple syrup industry, as described in the crop reports written by Arnold Coombs, a seventh generation maple syrup producer and packer in Vermont.

Full disclosure:  The 2012 crop report abbreviated below was originally sent to me by the farm’s publicist, who thought it might provide a story about the connections between maple syrup and climate change.

Indeed it does. Especially when combined with Mr. Coomb’s reports from 2009 (best crop in the last 75 years) and 2010 (production dramatically below average).

Up, down, up, down, way hot, way not, dust-bowl dry and then hundred-year flooded, the globe is on a violent weather see-saw that is not well described by “warming,” a word that usually evokes something pleasant. “Climate change” is a little better,  but not by much. Change isn’t always pleasant, but it’s beneficial at least as often as it is harmful, which cannot be said about the see-saw.

The search for a term that is both scientifically defensible and sufficiently horrifying is ongoing. As is the phenomenon the term will describe. Here’s an on-the-ground look at one early shape of the agriculture to come, and following that, links to a few recipes. Maple syrup shortages and price hikes are probably inevitable, but they’re not likely to be crippling, especially given that our local, sustainable sweetener is not only delicious but also, for what it is, inexpensive.

2012 Preliminary Crop Report

By Arnold Coombs  (edited and condensed by me)


Following a huge crop like 2011, the 2012 crop had a tough act to follow.  The winter weather was most unusual with temperatures well above average. In southern VT and NH we had only two significant snow storms with the biggest being in October.

Because of the warmth and the lack of snow, getting around in the woods was much easier. Most sugar makers were ready to start producing early, but then in the week of March 19th, temperatures hit the 70s for four days in a row and ended our season prematurely.

This year, half of last year’s record amount seems to be normal, which translates into about 70% of an average crop for some, less for others.  We estimate the final US production at 18,000,000 lbs. compared to over 30,000,000 lbs. last year. Canadian production looks to be similar. What does that mean for prices? They will be going up. How much? That is still to be determined…

The farmers’ union in Quebec increased the base of syrup price 3% and with other costs rising (what isn’t going up?) we see a minimum increase of 5%…. pricing usually settles down by Late May or early June.

Due to the warmer weather, this year’s crop is running darker than usual, (last year the crop was 30% Grade A Light Amber and this year it is 5%) but the flavor is still quite good and we have plenty.


Personally, I’m delighted. As long it isn’t “buddy” (off-flavored because the tree has started to leaf out) I like the darker grade B better anyway.


maple carrot tartlet

Yes, it's dessert. (Carrot cake for pie-preferrers, albeit without raisins.)

Assorted maple tarts (carrot, apple and wild rice), and Downeast Company Coleslaw are here.

Crisp Crust Maple-Walnut Pie is here.

Les Grandperes (French Canadian cottage pudding, aka biscuits on syrup) is – or I suppose are – here.

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