Mar 28, 2022 - Economy

Pure maple syrup — from New Mexico?

Illustration of a stack of pancakes with maple syrup drizzled on top in the shape of the Zia sun symbol from the New Mexico state flag

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

As climate change continues to stifle maple syrup production in New England, different parts of the country — including the Southwest and the Mountain states — are trying to pick up the slack.

Why it matters: If states like New Mexico, Utah and Montana succeed in building up their (very) nascent maple sugaring operations, the nation's supply of the tasty pancake topping could not only grow a bit more plentiful but also have regional taste variations.

  • Vermont is famous for its sugar maples, but scientists and landowners in the West and Southwest are tapping different varieties, like black maples, box elders and bigtooth maples.
  • The Pacific Northwest is also taking baby steps into the business, with the head of the Oregon Maple Project recently telling Modern Farmer (with a laugh): "This year, we have made eight gallons of syrup.”
  • Green chile maple syrup, anyone?

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

  • The grant comes from the USDA's Acer program, a 5-year-old effort to expand the domestic maple syrup industry into new parts of the country.
  • Drawing sap from maple trees involves tapping them in springtime, when the temperature difference between cold nights and warm days gets sap flowing.
  • Such conditions exist in the intermountain West, where initial efforts to tap maple trees in January and February have been successful.

"It’s an amber type syrup," says Rolston St. Hilaire, the professor at New Mexico State University who is spearheading the effort. "I almost cannot distinguish it from the sugar maple syrup that I buy from the store, so I am convinced that we can do it here."

Where it stands: Members of the eight-state research consortium are experimenting with different kinds of indigenous maple trees under different conditions, to find out what temperatures and methods work best.

  • They've contacted local landowners with maples on their property to see if they'd like to try tapping them, and "the response has been overwhelming," St. Hilaire said.
    • A man from Taos, New Mexico, reached out with samples of syrup he had made from his backyard box elder maple.
    • "He told me that people thought he was sort of this — I don't want to say crazy guy — that everyone told him he could not produce maple syrup in New Mexico."
  • While maple syrup is likely to be just a boutique or craft type of industry in Western states, a goal of the effort is to "fill that gap that may be caused by lesser production" in New England, St. Hilaire said.

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

  • It primarily uses Norway maples, which makes syrup that's "darker in color and more dynamic in flavor," Montana MapleWorks says.
  • "The syrup starts out with brown sugar flavors that are accompanied by butterscotch notes. As the season progresses, the syrup gains more of a caramel flavor with stone fruit notes."

The big picture: Global warming is an existential threat to the maple sugar industry in Vermont, which dominates the U.S. market.

  • The USDA is "encouraging owners and operators of privately held land containing maple trees to either initiate/expand maple-sugaring activities or make the land available for maple-sugaring activities," an agency spokesperson tells Axios.
  • Last year, after a short, warm spring hampered maple syrup production in traditional areas, Canada had to tap 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 presents challenges in shortening the length of the sugaring season, facilitating the expansion 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 chiles — those are primarily produced in the southern part of the state," St. Hilaire tells Axios. "I see no reason why we couldn't be known for specialty type maple syrup."
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