Valley Bounty: Maple Syrup

When I spoke with Howard Boyden last week, he was in the midst of an all-out maple syrup sprint.

“This season is just killing us. It is so fast and furious,” he said.

In most years, Boyden would consider it a good maple production day if he made 75-80 gallons of syrup. “The night before last, I made 99 gallons. Yesterday I made 139. And today I’ll make another 100. You just barely can come up for air,” he said with a big laugh.

To put that in context, Boyden’s typical annual production is around 1,000 gallons of syrup. So those 238 gallons of syrup he made in just two days might represent around 20% of his entire 2020 production.

Howard Boyden owns Boyden Brothers Maple in Conway, where he produces maple syrup, maple candy, and maple cream alongside his wife Jeanne, with support from his brother Andy Boyden’s family.

Boyden has run the business since his father passed away in 1985 and maple has always been a part of his life. “I was born into it,” he said. “I’m the third generation on my father’s side and on my mother’s side it goes all the way back to the Native Americans. So it’s something I can’t help. I’ve got maple syrup in my veins.”

Boyden has expanded the business during his decades at the helm and today Boyden Brothers Maple has 3,700 taps spread across Conway.

At Boyden’s scale, the maple business is a year-round project. But the big push for 2020 began last December, when he hauled 500-foot rolls of maple tubing into the woods.

The maple tubing allows the sap from Boyden’s thousands of taps to flow straight from the trees into large collection tanks scattered throughout his sugarbush.

Boyden is constantly adapting to changes in the woods, as older trees get damaged or die, and younger trees mature and become ready to get tapped.

“About every 10 years, the woods have changed so much that it’s time to take down the old tubing and build new,” he explained. “You think about woods as a static thing. But anyone who spends time in the same piece of woods year after year, knows it’s quite amazing how much the woods change over a 10-year period.”

Unfortunately, some of the changes Boyden has tracked over his decades working in the woods have been the result of invasive insects.

“The Hemlock Woolly Adelgid has done a job on hemlocks. A lot of them are dying or dead already,” he said. “Emerald Ash Borer is going to pretty much wipe out all the ash, and that’s already started.”

So far, Boyden’s maple stands haven’t been hit by pests the way some other trees have been. But the threat of the Asian Longhorned Beetle (ALB) concerns Boyden.

“If it actually gets a foothold in New England, then the whole [maple] industry is gone,” he said.

According to the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation website, the ALB likely traveled to the US in wood packaging material from Asia. An infestation that was discovered in Worcester in 2008 is ongoing.  Right now, 110 square miles surrounding the Worcester area are regulated for the ALB. Infested trees are destroyed and a quarantine is in place to avoid transporting trees from that area.

While it is difficult to attribute specific pest infestations to climate change, local farmers can expect increasing pest pressure as the climate shifts towards more precipitation and milder winters that more pests can survive.

Boyden has already noticed shifts in the climate playing out in the rhythm of the sugaring season.

“When I was very young, you didn’t start [tapping trees] until the first of March and you didn’t get serious until the 15th,” he said. “But with climate change and all that, spring comes much earlier than it used to.”

Boyden’s new normal for tapping trees is the day after Valentine’s Day, February 15.

Climate change is also affecting the geography of maple syrup production.

“Right now, what we’re seeing is the sugar maple region moving northwards slowly,” Boyden said. “But there’s a long way to go. [The region] stretches all the way down to the Virginias. But you’re seeing shorter and shorter seasons even as close by as Connecticut. Their maple season can be extremely short now just because they don’t have that long spring, that long time when you have those freezing nights and warm days.”

But even as global climatic forces play out on Boyden’s farm, the top threat to tree health has been local.

“The biggest real environmental change I have seen over the year is roadside maple trees succumbing to road salt damage,” he said. “Our roadside trees have pretty much gone away. It forces us to go back into the woods to look at trees that we would have normally not even looked at before.”

The good news is that insects, salt, or the weather haven’t stopped Boyden from having a great 2020 season thus far. The sap is flowing and the sugar content in the sap has been solid. So keep an eye out for Boyden Brothers Maple maple products at Apex Orchards, Natural Roots Farm, and other local markets.

And Boyden Brothers Maple is far from the only game in town. There are maple producers throughout the region. Visit buylocalfood.org/farmguide to find a sugar house near you. Because as Boyden says, “Maple should be a staple, and it should be bought locally.”

Noah Baustin is the Communications Coordinator at CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture)

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