Monthly Archives: December 2015

What Will the Ohio Maple Syrup Industry Look Like in 2050?

Les Ober
Ohio State University Extension Geauga County

(This is a follow-up post to the July 16th post on leasing and evaluating maple stands. It contains more questions than answers.)

Over the Thanksgiving holiday I had a chance to read in depth the latest edition of The Maple News. What caught my eye was and articles about a recent scientific study concerning with the health of the maple trees in the Adirondacks Mountains in upstate New York. The article documented the relatively slow growth of the sugar maple trees in that region. For many reading articles like these, the importance does not always hit home because it is about a potential problem in an area that is a long way from the home sugar bush. Therefore, why should we be concerned? The answer to that question became all too clear after attending a two day planning meeting on woodlot management held at the Holden Arboretum in Kirtland, Ohio.

The Holden Arboretum is considered to be one of the top Arboretum’s in the country. Their research on trees is highly respected around the world. The arboretum covers 4000 acres and includes all types of hard and soft wood species. It also includes the sites of several old sugar bushes and a grove of super sweet trees. One of Holden’s latest projects is entitled the “Working Woods”. It is setup to take a hard look at how local woodlots are managed, for not only timber sales but forest products including maple syrup production. The initial meeting was more of an introduction to the project and a chance to share opinions on the subject of forest management. The group sitting at the table included arborists from several states, commercial foresters and foresters from the Ohio Division of Forestry, along with members of the Holden staff. I was fortunate to be selected to represent the local maple syrup industry at this meeting. What I was able to take home from the discussion changed my prospective on forest management. I quickly became aware that there are many things we need to be concerned about regarding the health of our trees and their future.

For several years now, one of my projects at the Geauga County OSU Extension has been to examine what is happening to the maple tree resource in NE Ohio. This project entitled, “Preserving Sugar Maple for the Next Generation”, is finding out that NE Ohio maple syrup production may be entering a new phase. After WWII just about every farm (most were small dairy farms) in NE had a sugar bush. The sugar bushes were small and there were many individual sugar camps in a square mile area. This gave the appearance of an endless supply of maples to tap. Fast track to the year 2000, most of the small dairy farms are sold because their owners could not keep pace with the modern expansion of the industry. Many of the sugar bushes are cut down and replaced with housing developments. This type of development also increases the demand for home furnishings. One of the most popular furniture’s today is made of hardwood which includes maple. It is no surprise that Ohio has become one of the leading producers of hardwood furniture in the country. That industry is centered in Holmes County just 60 miles from the Geauga County. Suddenly there is a new interest in the maple tree and it is not only for syrup production. Tracts containing old sugar bushes are being harvested at a steady pace to keep up with the demand of the furniture industry. This would be ok if we lived in an area where there were expansive tracts of timber but we do not. Instead we live in an area where there are small woodlots, 10 to 20 acres that cannot stand extensive harvest. To make matters worse the people doing the logging feel that the only economical cut they can make is a clear cut. Selective cutting just does not generate enough revenue to bring in a mill. As a result NE Ohio has become the poster boy for bad logging practices.

One of the things I learned at the Holden meeting was that along with increased harvest our maple trees are now coming under increased environmental pressure on multiple fronts. We live in world of invasive species, natural imbalances and yes the dreaded term, climate change. As the article on the Adirondack forest maples pointed out, trees that should be thriving are just not growing at the rate they should, do to multiple factors affecting their growth. In Ohio we have also seen increased pressure from wildlife and insect damage on the surface and earthworm damage from beneath the soil. Both have led to reduction in the regeneration of young trees to replace the aging trees that will soon be lost. I was able to document this at Holden over the last 8 years. While recently standing in the middle of the Holden Arboretum Working Woods demonstration sites (an Old Sugar bush) I was very alarmed at the lack of regeneration that had taken place over that span of time. The question came to mind; if you are unable to regenerate a new growth in a well-managed woodlot, within an arboretum, what are the chances of maple trees coming back in a site that had been clear cut for timber production? The answer to that was all too obvious. Only under the best circumstances could a clear cut woodlot come back into maple production. Unfortunately in NE Ohio, Best Management Practices in logging are seldom used. This leaves one to ponder; with 60 % of Ohio’s maple syrup currently being produced in NE Ohio, what will the Ohio Maple syrup Industry look like in 2050? The bigger question is what will be needed to protect this valuable resource.

One of the facts produced by the OSU study is that the risk to maple trees is significantly higher on private property, than on public property. There are still good healthy stands of maple trees growing in our parks and on other publically owned land. However, even those maple stands are under constant pressure from expanding poorly managed deer herds. For the most part we will always have stands of maple on public lands; it is the maples in privately owned woodlots that are at risk. The goal of both of these projects is to educate private landowners on how to manage woodlots on their property. The education process starts by showing a landowner what the options are for available for woodlot utilization and management. Beyond that, they still need to be convinced that the best way to make those decisions to seek professional help before they sign any contractual agreement. This means that certified foresters need to be brought in appraise the resource. If they decide not to cut and to go with maple syrup or sap production then they need to contact someone who can show them how to make that happen. As Cornell University Maple Specialist Dr. Michael Farrell points out in his book, “ A Sugarmaker’s Companion”. “Often the best way to save a maple tree is to utilize it for maple syrup production”.

It is not the intention of anyone to dictate what a landowner should do with his or her property. Certainly if they have made up their mind to harvest the timber for whatever they are offered, they have the right to do that. The big problem here is that what looks good on the surface does not always end up that way and there are often regrets when the process is completed. We need to make sure when a woodlot owner makes a decision it is an educated decision. Hopefully somewhere along the way we will see less woodlots with maple trees being cut down and more going into maple syrup production. In the mean time enjoy the hours you spend in your sugarbush and never take the sweet gift of making maple syrup from these magnificent trees for granted.

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Filed under Maple Education, Planning, Sugarbush Management