By Stephen Smoot
Warmer than normal temperatures in the core months of last winter brought significant drops to production of maple, a crop that figures greatly in local value added agriculture planning.
“We always hope for the best conditions possible,” wrote Kent Leonhardt, State Commissioner of Agriculture, “but sometimes Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate.”
Maple sap flows best when winter nights turn cold and daytime temperatures remain at least below 40, preferably below freezing. During last winter, daytime temperatures reached the 70s on several days in most of the state. They reached the 60s in the peak production mountain regions.
According to a report from West Virginia Public Broadcasting, maple production in 2023 “dried up in mid-February,” but producers innovate to squeeze more sap from a less productive winter. When the La Nina weather phenomenon faded, March temperatures became more seasonal. Some producers re-tapped trees, something that they had never previously tried. This helped many to eke out a few more gallons of syrup.
Retail prices for syrup in 2022 hit more than $58.00 per gallon.
State production dipped from 13,000 gallons in 2022 to 11,000 this year. Producers also tapped 69,000 trees, approximately 8,000 less than last year. Yield from sap even dropped. It took 64 gallons of sap to make one of finished product in 2023, up one gallon of sap from 2022.
Another issue that confounded lower elevation producers came with the flavor of the finished product. The blog of the West Virginia Maple Syrup Producers Association reported that “there were challenges with off-flavored syrup.” The writer shared that “I produced a whopping 36 ounces of syrup, and it was all off flavor with metabolism.”
According to The Maple News, metabolism affects final product taste and quality during warmer winter temperatures. “This can be present at any time during the sugaring season,” the article stated, adding that “usually a change to colder temperatures reverses its effect on the finished syrup.”
The Maple News also stated that reports of metabolism affecting flavor are mostly anecdotal at this point, with more research needed to determine the overall cause. “A metabolism off-flavor robs the product of most of its maple flavor,” however, and “the resulting flavor has been described as woody, peanut butter, or popcorn. An almost cardboard like flavor may be present. A chocolaty smell may be detected.”
The West Virginia State Maple Syrup Association blog reported, however, that “I think the upper elevations did well, and hopefully everyone did well early on.”
Oddly, though the average price per gallon dropped between 2021 and 2022, retail, wholesale, and bulk prices of maple all rose substantially. Reduced production of quality syrup in 2023 should push prices of finished product even higher if demand remains the same or rises. National maple production dropped 15 percent over 2022 totals.
Leonhardt remains bullish on West Virginia maple production and sales. He urged consumers to continue to avoid the “maple flavored corn syrup you find in big box stores.” If buyers compare that to the real product, “I guarantee that you’ll reach for pure West Virginia maple syrup every time.”