This was crazy—it was just February 9, and bottling of 2024’s first maple syrup run had already begun at Agape Valley. Is this balmy weather and early start to the season a problem for the maple trees or Niagara producers?
Tim Hartwick, a 30-year volunteer veteran, says, “When it comes to producing the syrup, you take what nature gives you. The season in southern Ontario usually lasts four to six weeks, yet last year in Niagara it continued for eight weeks.”
The warm weather causes the sap to run, cold nights with below-freezing temperatures are required to stop the trees from producing sap, a process which Hartwick describes as ‘rebooting’ the trees. This year, between February 7 and 9, night temperatures didn’t drop below freezing. During this warm spell, the trees just kept drawing moisture from the ground and producing sap until they became saturated. Hartwick uses the analogy of a sponge.
“Once a sponge soaks up so much water, it doesn’t pick up any more.”
Trees react similarly. They soak up water, which mixes with the sugar in the trees, and is then delivered to feed their buds. When the buds have sufficient nutrients, the process of producing sap slows down. Negative temperatures are needed to send unused sap back to the ground.
“All that water needs to empty itself. You leave a garden hose outside overnight and it freezes. What happens? It cracks. The tree knows that. It needs to get rid of the water so that when it does freeze, it’s not going to start cracking. It would die.”
From a syrup producer’s perspective, a prolonged warm period, without the necessary freezing cold nights, has consequences.
“Let’s say, for instance, if this warm spell continues, we would not get the sap, [because] the trees would be saturated, and eventually the buds would get enough sugar and just break into leaves,” says Hartwick. “When the bud breaks, the sap’s no good anymore. It will have what they call a ‘buddy taste’ to it, and you can’t make maple syrup from it.”
He refers to recent Quebec harvests as an example. On average, Quebec produces 72 percent of the world’s maple syrup. In years during which the weather warmed too quickly, producers had neither the quality nor the quantity of sap to make their usual amount of maple syrup. Their harvest in 2022 was 211 million pounds, but last year it was just 124 million.
Above, after being run through evaporators two days earlier, the first syrup of the season is processed. Video courtesy Agape Valley.
There are some advantages to the warm weather we’re experiencing now. Volunteers are usually fighting snow and cold at this time of year preparing all the sugar bush displays, historic exhibits, and discovery trails for the March opening of Maple Syrup Days.
Charlene Reed, who volunteers as Agape Valley’s social media manager, reminisces about the season six or eight years ago.
“The snow was so deep that they couldn’t even get out into the bush to tap the trees, we had to buy snowshoes.”
While acknowledging that the snowshoes have hung on the wall ever since, Hartwick interjects, “This year is fantastic, we’ve got a good jump on preparations, we’re hittin’ it full throttle.”
The amount of volunteer work that goes into running Agape Valley’s Maple Syrup Days is staggering. All tours and presentations are free to the public, as are the educational field trips offered to schools. Product or breakfast purchases are the only potential costs for visitors. Each day Agape is open to the public requires about 60 volunteers—from parking attendants to Taffy Booth helpers, tractor drivers to greeters.
The tours begin with the Indigenous history of making sweet water by pouring sap over hot rocks, and then follows the various tools and processes through to today’s vacuum collection tubes and stainless steel evaporators.
Agape Valley school field trips are fully booked for 2024, and free admission passes (one per carload) to March Maple Syrup Days will be available to the public online beginning February 16. The operation is owned by Niagara Shorthills Christian Ministries, and proceeds from Maple Syrup Days support NSCM’s summer bible camp programs.