Wesselman Woods Makes 0 Gallons of Maple Syrup Due to Warm Winter, Dry Summer
Annual Maple Sugarbush Festival drew 1,500 visitors to Wesselmsan Woods — but no local syrup was produced; outside syrup was brought in to cover entire event
It’s a busy Saturday at Wesselman Woods’ Maple Sugarbush Festival. Volunteers chat over the smell of cooking pancakes, and the sound of spatulas tapping the large flat griddle as they flip the cakes.
Families wait in line to eat some breakfast and then learn about the facility and explore the trails.
Inside, volunteers serve pancakes, sausage and of course, maple syrup. Normally guests enjoy at least some syrup from the sap of maple sugarbush trees in Wesselman Park. But this year all of the syrup had to be purchased from a different Indiana sugarbush.
Cindy Cifuentes is Director of Natural Resources and Research at Wesselman Woods.
“This is the lowest amount of sap we've ever collected,” she said. “And we collected 39 gallons of salvageable sap this year compared to the 350-some that we collected last year — it's quite a difference. But we can safely say that it's due to temperature and weather reasons.”
Meaning it was just too warm, and dry for the trees to produce any sap.
Also, they started collecting early in the first week in January. “Normally we wait until like mid to late January. But even starting out early, we didn't collect as much,” she said. “This winter has been the warmest we've had in a while. So it's all dependent on weather and temperature. And we can definitely say that that's the reason why we have such a low amount of stuff this year.”
Henri Maurice is a biology professor and trained plant biologist at the University of Southern Indiana (USI).
“So basically, (sap is) all in preparation for budding out in the spring,” he said. “So the transport tissues begin to move materials to the various parts of the plant.”
Maple trees need the winter rhythm of nighttime sub-freezing temperatures and above freezing temperatures during the day to circulate the sap. Materials like starches are stored in the tissues of the tree from the previous growing season to be used in the new growth season.
The starches are turned into sugars and transported through the tree to power the budding process.
But again, the tree needs freezing temps at night and temps above 40 during the day to actually pump the sap through the tree. “The differences in pressure that exist as a result of the temperature changes are going to drive the flow of the sap,” he said.
But that didn’t happen this year. Jerry Rairdon, director of development at Wesselman Woods, said it takes 40 to 60 gallons of raw sap to make syrup. They had 39.
Syrup is made by boiling the sap, distilling it down to the sugary syrup. This was demonstrated in the sugar shack for guests, using water instead of sap.
The Sugar shack is normally where the sap is distilled into sugary syrup.
Here, visitors are educated on how the evaporation process works from expert volunteers like Katherine Wantland, who points at the metal contraption of three courses of percolating water, instead of sap.
“So what will happen is a sample comes through here, it'll boil along and they'll kind of go in a zigzag pattern and it'll make its way down to this trough here. And hopefully by then it should be a darker color, it should be a lot thicker.”
Henry Backes said he’s been doing this since Wesselman started. He was also in the shack to answer questions.
“If a tree is right, we can put in more than one tap; and a tap today may not give you sap tomorrow,” he said. “So it's again up to the tree to let us have the sap from it.”
Aside from the environmental concerns, it was also expensive for Wesselman Woods to buy so much outside sugar. It cost $53 dollars per gallon instead of the usual $19 they use to supplement their festival. The other Indiana sugarbush had to charge more because they also had reduced yields.
Rairdon said Wesselman Woods made $2,000 from their own syrup in 2022. This year all the syrup had to be purchased from outside.
It also doesn’t help that Evansville is about as far south as one can be to tap for maple sugar. This is because south of here, nights are warmer through winter and the tree doesn’t tend to grow there.
They also only tap maples outside Wesselman Woods itself, so they have about a dozen to tap each year.
But even sugarbushes in the northeast are concerned that warm winters could be a trend due to climate change, according to Maurice.
“I know that there's an effort to try to develop new varieties of trees that are going to survive better in the warmer conditions and still produce the sap,” he said. Companies, universities and university extensions are also working to develop warm weather resistant varieties of coffee and cacao.
Bad year for syrup aside, the festival drew a record 1,500 visitors, earning the average $12,000, and offsetting the cost of the syrup. Visitors were educated about everything Wesselman Woods has to offer.