Skip to comments.Maple Syrup Revolution: A New Discovery Could Change the Business Forever
Posted on 02/03/2014 10:44:37 AM PST by Theoria
This past fall I nearly made that clichéd mistake of getting in between a mother bear and her cubs.
My husband, Eric and I have a farm and maple syrup operation situated on 1,000 acres of mostly wooded land in northern Vermont. I had walked a quarter mile through the forest to our house to retrieve our truck and upon my return, a medium-sized black bear ambled out of the woods and strode across the driveway right in front of me. I was stunned and enthralled since I had just five minutes previously passed by on foot. As I sat in the truck marveling, two young cubs popped out of the brush and hurried to catch up to her.
They passed under the tubes that carry sap from the trees to our sugarhouse where it is processed and then continued through the forest and up the mountain. The bears pay no attention to the tubing and neither do the fisher cats or ermine or flying squirrels that make a home here. Though we have a presence in this forest tapping these trees for our livelihood, it only takes crossing paths with a bear to remind me that this land is still feral. While most crops are now harvested out of tidy rows in managed fields, the untamed northeastern woods have always been inseparable from the production of maple syrup. But a new discovery in harvesting sap may change that and bring big changes for those of us in the industry.
Vermont leads the United States in total maple production, pumping out 1,320,000 gallons of maple syrup in 2013. Maple syrup is produced by collecting sap from maple trees and boiling it down to syrup. In late winter as temperatures rise, sugarmakers, as we are known, will drill a hole in a mature tree and place a tap in the hole which drips the sap into a bucket or, more commonly these days, into tubing that leads directly to a reservoir or the sugarhouse where the syrup is processed. For those of us who use tubing, we usually have it under vacuum to keep the sap moving through the network.
Once in the sugarhouse, most large scale operations are now equipped with a reverse-osmosis machine that then removes a large portion of the water from the sap, making the final step of boiling it down to syrup more efficient. The process has been modernized considerably since pioneers learned the practice from Native Americans several centuries ago. The one thing that has not changed is the necessity of a mature forest, preferably with a large concentration of maple species.
But all that might change.
In October 2013, Drs. Tim Perkins and Abby van Den Berg of the University of Vermonts Proctor Maple Research Center, revealed the findings of a study at a maple syrup conference in New Brunswick, Canada that sent waves through the industry. In 2010, they were studying vacuum systems in sap collection operations. Based on the observation that one of the mature trees in the study that was missing most of its top was still yielding high volumes of sap, they hypothesized that the maples were possibly drawing moisture from the soil and not the crown. Previously, they had presumed that the sap dripping from tap holes was coming from the upper portion of the tree. But, if the tree was missing most of its crown then, they surmised, it must be drawing moisture from the roots.
In order not to destroy the mature maples in the research forest to test their theory, they went to the maple saplings planted near the lab which are often used to gather data. They lopped off the top of the small trees, put caps on them with a tube inserted, sealed the cap and put them under vacuum. The young trees produced impressive quantities of sap, even without the benefit of a crown.
Initially with the mature tree we didnt think much of it other than this is a really interesting observation of the importance of vacuum in pulling sap out of the trees, says Perkins. But after we cut the top off the sapling we thought This is unusual enough that we should look at it some more.
The pair thought that they may have hit on something big.
We were looking to see, do we really need the top of the tree to function? Can we still get sap and more importantly sugar from a tree without its top and we did, says van den Berg.
They realized that their discovery meant sugarmakers could use saplings, densely planted in open fields, to harvest sap. In other words, it is possible that maple syrup could now be produced as a row crop like every other commercial crop in North America.
In a natural forest, which varies in maple density, an average 60 to 100 taps per acre will yield 40 to 50 gallons of syrup. According to the researchers calculations, an acre of what is now called the plantation method could sustain 5,800 saplings with taps yielding 400 gallons of syrup per acre. If the method is realized, producing maple syrup on a commercial scale may no longer be restricted to those with forest land; it could require just 50 acres of arable land instead of 500 acres of forest. Furthermore, any region with the right climate for growing maples would be able to start up maple farms. The natural forest would become redundant.
Perkins and van den Berg, who have devoted their careers to the maple industry since 1996 and 1999 respectively, are optimistic the plantation system will benefit existing sugar makers.
The amount of good well-stocked maple forests out there, in Vermont at least, is getting low because maple is going through this very rapid growth, says Perkins. If you cant buy land near you that can be rapidly developed into a producing area this offers sugarmakers a chance to grow their operation.
According to Perkins over 50 percent of the Vermont stands of forest with a viable sugar bush are in production at the moment. Given the robust price of maple syrup in the past decade, the value of remaining maple forests have risen considerably so anyone looking to get into the business or add to their holdings will have to put up considerable capital. With the plantation maple system, they can increase production using fields they may already have.
Another benefit, which actually keeps production in the woods, is that sugar makers can use the technology to get production out of areas that have a very young forest or have experienced catastrophic damage. Occasionally, tornadoes, fire or ice storms devastate a standing forest and a producer will have to wait several decades for the forest to recover before that parcel is productive again. This technology allows them to get back into production with regenerated growth using trees that are just seven years old.
The plantation system could also be a hedge against climate change. The flow of sap will always be reliant on the seesaw of freeze-thaw cycles no matter what size tree. Sap flows when temperatures rise above freezing but will diminish over several days unless it freezes again and then rethaws. The smaller saplings are quicker to start thawing as temperatures rise which gets the sap flowing sooner. Perkins and van den Berg also found that the sap flowed from the saplings for nearly ten days without needing the recharge of a freeze cycle the way larger trees do. A more reliable flow of sap could make all the difference for a profitable season if weather patterns continue to stray from the norm.
Finally, the sapling system is unappealing to the voracious Asian longhorn beetle, an invasive species that threaten to devastate the maple forests of North America. The beetles have been found in Montreal, Ontario and Massachusetts and are a constant bogeyman to sugarmakers. But the beetles prefer mature trees for their habitat and tend to spare the saplings.
The plantation method certainly comes with enough appealing advantages, that it seems like a obvious choice for a sugarmaker to adopt the practice as a supplemental source of sap. But what if the plantation system replaced the current method completely?
If maple does head in that direction, the change would not happen immediately. Perkins notes that their initial data showed that the cost of labor and materials for the new system was the same as a traditional system if you did not include the price of the land. In other words, despite the significantly higher yields from a smaller area, it would still take a great deal of time to hook up the saplings and a capital investment in more taps. Furthermore, the actual gadgetry needed to install the plantation system does not exist yet. Perkins and Van den Berg hobbled together the system using parts from their lab. But theyre anticipating that sugarmakers will want it theyve applied for a patent on the method and devices.
So what do sugarmakers think?
Dave Folino, owner of Hillsboro Sugar Works in Starksboro, Vermont echoed what many other sugar makers I spoke with said; it could be a game changer.
Im torn, says Folino.
I could see how it would be very efficient and replace the wild crop. Im tied to the old images but it is tantalizing the thought of controlling things. In my lifetime, Ive seen the shrinking of the dairy industry [in Vermont]. I would hate to see the same for the wild crop but it is probably economically inevitable.
Folino puts in 14,000 taps over 200 acres of his steeply sloped land. He notes that he is almost 60 and the thought of working on flat land in a more controlled space is tempting. But he also worries that the industry will shift to more workable land such as the fertile, northern Midwest.
Personally the thought of taking maple out of the forest and turning into another row crop saddens me. We have been in the maple business since 2009 and our sugarhouse has a reputation for utilizing the most modern technology available to maximize efficiency of production. Nevertheless, the news of the plantation system has been a lot to chew on since we learned of it. We are relatively new to the trade but have come to love it, one of the principal reasons being our interaction with the thousand acres of forest behind our home. Like Dave Folino, I fear that the industry will no longer be special to New England but will be usurped by entrepreneurs anywhere with the right climate. And on a more visceral level, I feel that maple syrup is and should remain a product of the wild. Aside from mushrooms and game meat, the woods of Vermont hardly yield anything edible. And yet, this exquisite sugar can be extracted from the trees while still leaving them healthy and the forest a home to everything from rare wildflowers to bob cats. For me, knowing its origins elicits an amount of pleasure equal to tasting its unique flavor when I drizzle it over morning pancakes. Finally, I ponder what will happen to the acres of working forests if landowners are no longer making an income from them through tapping the trees. It would be unrealistic to expect all of those landowners to choose conservation.
I am aware that change will come to the industry over the next few decades whether we adapt or not. There has always been a romantic notion of the tradition of gathering sap in buckets with horse drawn sleighs and boiling it down over a wood-fired pan. That image has already been replaced by tubing instead of buckets, four-wheelers instead of horses and sugar houses that resemble modern factories. This could be considered just another innovation to make the process of producing the amber gold easier and more profitable.
When I ask Perkins if he is worried that the discovery will threaten the traditional industry he replies, There is always that concern and I dont think we should discount it. That said, anytime you talk about a new technology there are always people who say, Its going to kill the industry. He mentions several technologies, such as reverse osmosis and tubing which were met with skepticism when they were first introduced and are now considered essential to large scale production.
Van den Berg doesnt see it as a threat to the industry at all but as a means of improving existing operations. The spirit of the study, she says was to give sugar makers a new tool in the toolbox.
Perhaps the researchers are right, and the plantation system is just another tool. In the meantime, I know change wont come overnight. The 2014 season is already well underway and due to an early thaw, we are getting our first sap runs. We have been tapping the lower elevations near the sugarhouse but each day well be heading up higher, going deeper into the woods.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that an average 60 to 100 taps per acre will yield 40 to 50 gallons of sap, and that the plantation method using 5,800 saplings with taps would yield 400 gallons of sap per acre. In both cases it should have read syrup and not sap. Also, Davide Folinos name was incorrectly spelled as Felino.
I love Maple Syrup [Free Republic].
If a tree has no crown where does the sugar come from year after year?
This will turn the Maple Syrup World upside down.
Only problem a bunch of stubs sticking out of the ground with what looks like feeding tubes won’t be too attractive.
A pair of saps.
Maple syrup time happens before the tree leafs out so why would anyone think the sap comes from the crown?
I wondered that too.
Good grief! Anyone who's cut down a maple or birch in the Spring will see sap pouring out of the stump! Not much of a revelation.
I learned in biology in HS decades ago that the trees store energy in their roots to prepare for constructing the new year’s solar energy collection facility up top.
I am with you , if anyone thinks that the sap in trees comes from the tops , i have some swamp land to sell you. I knew that as a kid working in our orchard.Wow ,i wonder how much that study cost?
Of course. I didn’t know there was any controversy about that. Is this article a hoax?
This is a bizarre statement and cannot possibly be an accurate quotation. I grew up in maple sugar country and no one ever had the slightest doubt that sap rises from the roots. That's why it is best to have warm days and cold nights in February and March. The sap rises during the day's warmth and sinks back during the cold of the night. Once it reaches the ends of the branches and the tree starts to put out buds it is no longer any good for syrup. So the length of the season depends on the weather, and the weather dictates the simple capillary action of the sap.
That having been said, I see no reason why sucking it out the top should not work, other than that the tree will probably not last long.
I smell a hoax.
Yes, the moisture is coming from the roots. No, there won't be significant sugar without photosynthesis having happened at some point. Which means once you've crowned the tree, it won't be able to deliver any more sugar than is already stored in the tree's tissues.
Haven’t we always heard ‘sap rising’? Where did the idea of sap coming from the crown come from?
How are these saplings going to survive w/o leaves? Isn’t photosynthesis needed to manufacture the sugars the tree needs to survive?
Normally if you cut the crown out of a tree it dies.
I thought everybody knew that the sap RISES up from the roots as spring approaches. I wonder if there’s any difference in sap quality between saplings and mature trees? This discovery COULD lead to a maple syrup glut and lower prices. Maple syrup is about the same price as medium grade whiskey right now.
Maple Syrup is expensive so I would love to see this work and lower the price.
It also suggests that watering the ground during harvest could help the sap flow even better.
Maple Syrup is expensive so I would love to see this work and lower the price.
It also suggests that watering the ground during harvest could help the sap flow even better.
I love it myself but the sad truth for the industry is most Americans prefer the corn syrup and caramel coloring crap.
The ground is still frozen when the sap is running. Maybe saturating it in the fall would help?
Maybe, certainly opens up some new strategies for testing.
Makes you wonder how many other long standing beliefs are completely wrong.
The economics of this are interesting. The farmers that I know who do sugaring are using land which they can’t really use for anything else. Usually this is steep terrain or areas cut by deep ravines, etc. If they go to a plantation style with rows of saplings then I assume they would need to use land which would be valuable (more valuable?) for other kinds of farming.
In my experience most Americans are unaware that what they are eating is not actually maple syrup.
Maple syrup is supposed to be better for diabetics than refined white sugar, because it metabolizes more slowly, IIRC. I would look forward to the price coming down, especially in granulated form.
I thought it was common knowledge that the maple sap was fresh water being drawn up from the roots. Once the water really starts flowing, for leafing out, the sap won’t make syrup.
Yeah, I struggle at the syrup section looking for the bottles that don’t have HFCS as the main ingredient.
You need enviromentablists with two PhDeees to figer that sap is coming down from the crown.
Nor would they like pure maple syrup, which is thinner, less (artificially) sweet than the aunt jemima corn syrupy gorp they usually use. The real stuff has a more subtle flavor.
Subtlety is probably not important to most pancake and waffle eaters.
I thought I’d be making syrup at home in a few years on my portable 3D printer ( bought at WalMart)
Hypothesized 400 gallons/acre at $30-40/gallon is $12,000-16,000 gross per acre. I don’t know of any one crop per season farmland that productive.
There is nothing better in coffee than maple sugar!
Besides pot. Not many.
My cousins in Franklin County tap 35,000. It’s the maple production that pays the bills, since the dairy side is a losing proposition.
That depends on what kind you buy. Most flatlanders buy fancy which IS very subtle but most VTers buy dark which has plenty of mapley-ness.
3D syrup sounds so delish:)
Sap *rises* in the spring.
Isn’t that common knowledge?
Interesting, thanks. I do buy the lighter color. Which do you prefer? Grade B?
If the cost of maple syrup were lower, more people would try it—and like it.
Our cousin spent a fortune trying to develop a reverse osmosis system to shorten the boiling down process of maple sap, 30 years ago, through UofV. Was a colossal failure of a business venture.
This reads like something from The Onion.
1. Everybody knows sap rises...but here they act like it is a new discovery.
2. How can a sapling live and keep producing after you chop off its top?
Uh... how is that tree going to survive long-term if it’s been decapitated?
Beat me by a couple of minutes.
Thanks for doing the math. I assume that they will have to have a rotating field system. If the saplings mentioned in the article are 3 or 4 years old (just my guess) and assuming they will have be replanted after the year of production, they would only net 1/3 to 1/4 of that.
We had that set and it set for 5 years before we decided to try it. It was excellent. Does real maple syrup ever go bad?
I always buy amber.
So people who use this method will be known as sapsuckers?
I suspect the plan is to replant every few years getting just one harvest per tree. Maples are tall and skinny when young so you could plant a lot of them per acre.
set up a seven acre producton cycle. Plant the trees and then seven years later top tehm for the syrup. Once harvested, pul them up and replant
Might even be able to plant very closely in a greenhouse for first two years and then transplant to the field for year three. Saves two full acres.
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