A national treasure under siege 

Maple syrup farmers not the only food producers facing climate change

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I could mainline maple syrup. Ever since I was a kid, I loved it so much I would hone in on it like a wasp at a barbecue if there was even a whiff of r-e-a-l maple syrup within a 50-km radius.

Albertans back then had a unique way of drawing out the adjective "real" that they invariably paired up with "maple syrup" like they were conjoined twins. The emphasis not only heightened the distance from those phony maple-flavoured imitators with ersatz flavouring in a fructose-corn syrup concoction, it also connoted values like rare, expensive — something proudly Canadian to be treasured and measured out of the tiny jug bottles that were carefully brought out from secret hiding places in the cupboard or fridge (the jury was still out on where it should be kept).

The "real" also proved you knew better.

Today, Luc Bergeron's Canada No. 3 dark (foncé) organic maple syrup transforms my porridge, my pancakes, and my sinfully fatty organic yogurt. Gorgeous maple sugar transforms my equally sinful vanilla ice cream, along with a handle of toasted walnuts, organic, again, and straight from the orchards in Summerland. These are simple but heavenly treats for a woman who hates to spend time making desserts — treats only afforded by the luxury of real maple syrup.

So my graying eyebrows arched even higher the other day when I read that maple syrup producers in Quebec, who are responsible for three-quarters of the world's supply, are akimbo this spring over what some are calling disastrous; catastrophic; the worst maple syrup season in memory.

"Not since the 1940s has there been a year with such a strange transition in weather patterns from winter to spring. And this radical swing from cold to hot in a matter of days has played havoc with maple syrup production," says a report in the Haliburton Highlander, which circulates in central Ontario not far from Quebec, smack in the heart of Ontario's maple sugar country.

The Ontario Maple Syrup Producers Association predicts a multimillion-dollar loss for producers due to output that's down at least 50 per cent in parts of the province. Quebec's association of producers says it's too early yet to tell how their producers will be hit financially.

But everyone from industry spokespeople to the farmers who turn on the syrup taps on the trees lays the problem squarely at the feet of climate change. And they expect to see even more impacts in the future as maple tree ecosystems are stressed with drought, heat waves and other extremes.

In fact, eastern maple syrup producers, including those in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, are worried that if a cold snap follows the recent heat wave, which caused the sap to flow too early, trees could be irrevocably damaged.

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