Pure maple syrup – from New Mexico?

As climate change continues to stifle maple syrup production in New England, different parts of the country — including the Southwest and mountain states — are trying to plug the gap.

Why it matters: If states like New Mexico, Utah and Montana manage to build up their (very) young maple candy plants, the nationwide supply of the delicious pancake topping could not only increase a little, but also show regional flavor variations.

  • Vermont is famous for its sugar maples, but scientists and landowners in the West and Southwest are developing different cultivars, such as black maple, elderberry, and bigtooth maple.
  • The Pacific Northwest is also taking small steps in the business, with the head of the Oregon Maple Project recently telling Modern Farmer (with a laugh), “This year we made eight gallons of syrup.”
  • Green Chili Maple Syrup, Anyone?

Driving the news: A research collaboration based in Utah, New Mexico and Montana is using a $500,000 grant from the USDA to research and promote the development of maple sugaring in those and nearby states.

  • The grant comes from the USDA’s Acer program, a 5-year-old attempt to expand the domestic maple syrup industry into new parts of the country.
  • In order to extract sap from maple trees, they must be tapped in spring, when the difference in temperature between cold nights and warm days gets the sap flowing.
  • Such conditions exist in the Intermountain West, where initial attempts to tap maple trees in January and February have been successful.

“It’s an amber syrup”, says Rolston St. Hilaire, the New Mexico State University professor leading the effort. “I can’t tell it apart from the sugar maple syrup I buy at the store, so I’m confident we can do it here.”

Where it says: Members of the eight-nation research consortium are experimenting with different species of native maple trees under different conditions to find out which temperatures and methods work best.

  • They contacted local landowners with maple trees on their property to see if they would like to try tapping them, and “the response has been overwhelming,” St. Hilaire said.
    • A Taos, New Mexico man held out his hand with samples of syrup he made from his backyard maple.
    • “He told me that people thought he was something — I won’t say he’s crazy — that everyone told him he couldn’t make maple syrup in New Mexico.”
  • While maple syrup is likely just a boutique or artisan industry of sorts in the western states, one goal of the effort is to “fill that gap that lower production can cause,” in New England, St. Hilaire said.

One participant is Montana MapleWorks of Missoula, which says it is “the only licensed commercial maple syrup producer in Montana”.

  • It uses primarily Norway maple, resulting in syrup that’s “darker in color and more vibrant in flavor,” says Montana MapleWorks.
  • “The syrup opens with aromas of brown sugar accompanied by notes of caramel. As the season progresses, the syrup gains more caramel flavor with notes of stone fruit.”

The big picture: Global warming is an existential threat to Vermont’s maple sugar industry, which dominates the US market.

  • The USDA “encourages owners and operators of privately held maple trees to either initiate/expand maple sugar activities or make the land available for maple sugar activities,” an agency spokesman told Axios.
  • Last year, after a short, warm spring that hampered maple syrup production in traditional areas, Canada had to tap into its strategic maple syrup reserves to meet rising demand.
  • “Aside from changing the natural geographic range in which these tree species can survive, a warming climate also poses challenges by shortening the length of the sugar season, facilitating the spread of invasive tree pests, and even reducing the concentration of sucrose in maple sap. per Audubon Vermont, the conservation group.

What’s next: Belgian waffles with New Mexico topping?

  • “We’re known for our chilies — they’re mainly produced in the southern part of the state,” St. Hilaire tells Axios. “I see no reason why we couldn’t be known for specialty maple syrup.”

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