Monday, March 21, 2022

Maple Syrup Production Combines Principles of Silviculture, Forest Management, Sustainable Agriculture, and Agroforestry 

In a few words, sustainability is the practice of using resources responsibly. It focuses on meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.

The concept of sustainability can be traced back to the forest management philosophies of Hans Carl von Carlowitz (1645–1714), in his work Sylvicultura Oeconomica (Instructions for Wild Tree Cultivation), in which he established a set of concepts for sustainable management of forest resources. His belief that timber removed from a forest stand should never exceed that which can be regrown through planned reforestation continues to be a guiding principle of forestry today.

Sustainability, as a policy concept, is most-often thought of as the ability to continue use over a long period of time, or as long-term goals and / or the strategies that may be applied to achieve those goals.

Sustainable Agriculture

Simply stated, sustainable agriculture is farming in ways that are sustainable. It focuses on minimizing impacts to the environment and the ecological systems within the environment (e.g. adverse effects to soil, water, biodiversity) without compromising the economic stability of the farm or the farmer’s quality of life, when producing crops over long periods of time.

Maple syrup production is based on the premise that tapping trees to collect sap has no significant detrimental effect on the overall health of the trees and is, therefore, a sustainable agricultural activity. When conservative tapping guidelines are used (placing one tap in trees 12-inches in diameter at breast height (dbh) and a second tap only in trees more than 18 inches dbh), tapping trees over long periods of time (100 years or more) doesn’t significantly impact tree-mortality.

Silviculture and Forest Management

Silviculture is, essentially, the art and science of growing trees. Merriam-Webster defines silviculture as ‘a branch of forestry dealing with the development and care of forests.’ It’s based on the belief that the ecological and economic success of a managed forest or woodlot depends primarily on the health of its individual trees.

Forest management involves the establishment, growth, composition, health, and quality of forests and woodlands, in order to meet the diverse needs and values of the landowners. It’s the active tending of a forested area to achieve certain predetermined goals.

The tree in the center of this picture is shorter than the tree to the left and it has a smaller crown. The tree on the left is winning in the competition for light, but the shorter tree is still having a negative impact. – Cornell Small Farms Program

Maple syrup production unites aspects of silviculture with those of sustainable agriculture and effective forest management. Maple syrup producing forests, called sugarbushes, are considered working agricultural croplands. And, since maple is the only significant agricultural product harvested from trees in the wild, careful forest management is vital to the industry.

According to New York State Extension Forester and Director of Cornell University’s Arnot Teaching and Research Forest,

Peter Smallidge, forest management for a sugarbush requires:

  1. Making sure that trees of good vigor and potential longevity are provided adequate sunlight. After all, sunlight feeds the leaves, which make the sugar.
  2. Controlling the effects of crowding by selecting which trees are removed and which remain. As trees get larger, they become crowded and compete for sunlight. Some will die or need to be removed.
  3. Minimizing stress events and their impacts. Like any biological organism, healthy, vigorous trees are better able to respond to stress than weak, unhealthy trees.

For more detailed information, check out ‘Maintaining a Healthy Sugarbush’ by Dr. Smallidge, found online at


Agroforestry entails land-use systems and technologies in which agricultural crops are grown on the same land as woody perennials (trees, shrubs). Since sap harvest takes place only during a short period of time each year, maple producers often grow edible crops or nursery plants in the understory and / or sustainably harvest high-value wild ones (e.g. mushrooms, American ginseng, wild leeks, fiddlehead ferns, sapling trees) in the understory.

Disease and damage can cause weak stems that are prone to failure. Trees like this one should be removed to avoid complications during the season and free growing space for nearby maple trees. – Cornell Small Farms Program

Reasons to Buy and Use Maple

When you choose to buy and use locally-sourced maple products, you support the New York State maple products industry, the local economy, and the rural character of northern New York. And you contribute to the preservation of maple trees and forests, and the ecological services they provide. Trees naturally capture carbon as part of their respiratory process. And that capture of carbon can help maintain environmental health.

What’s more, you support hard-working North Country farming families, for whom maple syrup production has become an increasingly important part of their livelihood. New York State Maple Producers Association Executive Director, Helen Thomas, has expressed her concerns about this saying, “There’s too much competition in the dairy industry, and we don’t have big wheat farms. So the future of agriculture in New York is specialty crops like wine and hops… and maple.”

Maple Weekend

Please feel welcome to visit one or more of our North Country family-run sugarhouses during Maple Weekend. To learn more visit or

Photo at top: Collecting maple sap from a network of taps and tubing that draws from more than 6,000 maple trees at Cornell University’s Arnot Teaching and Research Forest. – Jason Koski – Cornell Brand Communications.

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Richard Gast is a retired Extension Program Educator and has been contracted by Cornell Cooperative Extension Franklin County to continue his informative and thought provoking articles.

One Response

  1. Peter Collinge says:

    It’s clear that maple syrup production can be sustainable agriculture, but what about the boiling process? Use of wood-fired or gas/oil-fired evaporators certainly adds to climate change, and any wood-fired heat without a catalytic combustor also adds more particulate pollution to the atmosphere. Use of reverse osmosis systems can help reduce these impacts and should be encouraged. Yes, reverse osmosis takes electricity, but that can be generated renewably. Of course, maple syrup production also helps to incentivize preserving mature forests that sequester carbon. The overall goal should be good-tasting syrup that is as sustainable as possible.