Researchers extract sap from maple saplings

Smaller maple trees could be used to produce syrup with a new system being researched in Vermont. Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

Smaller maple trees could be used to produce syrup with a new system being researched in Vermont. Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

by Tena Starr

copyright the Chronicle 11-27-2013

Researchers at the Proctor Maple Research Center have stumbled onto a new way of sugaring that could revolutionize the most rapidly growing agricultural industry in Vermont.

Instead of getting 100 taps per acre, it would be possible to get 5,000 or more.  Instead of getting roughly 40 gallons of maple syrup per acre, it would be possible to get as much as 400 gallons per acre.

It would be possible, in other words, to have a prosperous sugaring operation on a single acre of farmland.

The idea is that saplings could be “tapped,” either in a regenerating sugarbush, or in a densely planted field.

Four years ago, Tim Perkins and Abby van den Berg at the Proctor Maple Research Center set out to study how sap flows in maple trees when a vacuum system is employed.  Vacuum sucks sap out of a tree rather than letting it flow at its natural, and much less predictable, rate.

Normally, in a thaw, sap flows downward through the tree.

“But if you’re on vacuum, you continue to get sap out of a tree after that process stops,” Mr. Perkins said.  “The only logical conclusion was that we were pulling sap up out of the ground.”

If that’s the case, then the top of the tree isn’t necessary to get a sap run, Mr. Perkins noted.  So, to test the theory, he and Ms. van den Berg lopped the top off a sapling, attached a plastic bag with a piece of tubing to the top of the stump, and sucked the sap out with vacuum.

It worked.  It worked so well, in fact, that, after four years of research, Mr. Perkins has concluded they discovered a whole new way of making syrup — one that could protect the industry from climate change and Asian longhorned beetles, allow new sugarmakers to get into the business despite prohibitively high land prices, and permit existing operations to expand.

A new sugarmaker could plant a closely spaced plantation of maple saplings.  A sugarmaker already in business could end up “tapping” the saplings that have grown up in his woods instead of clearing them out.

“There’s no question it works,” Mr. Perkins said.  “We generally don’t like to talk about things unless we know they’re going to work.  We spent four years looking at this before we began talking.  You can certainly make considerably more syrup per acre than with the standard method of sugaring.”

The only problem is it’s not yet possible to sugar such a plantation.  That’s because the device needed to get sap out of a sapling doesn’t exist — at least not on a large scale.

Mr. Perkins said the researchers made the equipment they used by hand, but no one would want to make enough for an entire plantation.  “It’s the same as if you had to whittle your own spouts,” he said.  “You wouldn’t want to make 5,000 or 6,000 of them.”

The device that’s missing is the plastic bag with the piece of tubing that would connect to the rest of the system.  “You need to get that sap out of the bag,” Mr. Perkins said.  “You can’t do it now because the devices to pull out the sap aren’t available commercially.”

Manufacturers have been approached and expressed interest, but at the moment no one is producing the piece needed for such a sugaring operation, Mr. Perkins said.

“We’ve spoken to manufacturers very briefly,” he said.  “Our next step is to start meeting with each manufacturer, describing it in more detail, and seeing if they want to start working with us.”

Among longtime sugarmakers, the procedure has generated good-natured cautiousness.

“When I saw it my immediate opinion was that’s crazy,” said Bucky Shelton of Glover, who has sugared for 35 years and is a sales and service man for Lapierre USA in Orleans.  “But if you put your mind into the future then it’s probably an interesting way to do this.  I’ll say one thing, you don’t have to worry about the wind blowing them down.  “It’s more secure as far as environmental problems go.”

Wind is a major threat to sugarmakers, and storms have been increasing, Mr. Shelton said.  He’s still cleaning up his own sugarbush, which was hit by a windstorm in May.

Jacques Couture, chairman of the Vermont Maple Sugarmakers Association, also a longtime sugarmaker, agrees that plantation sugaring could be a defense against increasing threats.  For instance, the hurricane of 1938 wiped out many mature sugarbushes, setting the business back years, he said.

“Some of the older sugarmakers talked about that.  All these beautiful sugarbushes got completely mowed down.”

“I don’t see myself doing it anytime soon, but it’s interesting,” Mr. Couture said.  “If we had some kind of major disaster, a lot of people would look at this seriously.”

That’s one of Mr. Perkins’ points.  Vermont’s sugaring industry, thriving right now, is whim to weather and pests, as is any agricultural venture.

The Asian longhorned beetle isn’t yet in Vermont, but it’s been found in neighboring states, and currently there are infestations in Massachusetts, New York, and Ohio.  It’s a serious threat to maples and other hardwood species, but it doesn’t like little trees, Mr. Perkins said.  They’re big beetles, and they like big trees to bore into, he said.  Saplings just don’t appeal to them.

And, 50 years down the road, as the temperature warms, smaller maples will be more likely to produce syrup.  Being smaller, they freeze and thaw quicker, allowing for more sap runs.

“In the projected environment we’re going to have 50 years from now, smaller trees will probably be better suited for sugaring,” Mr. Perkins said.

The ideal maple for plantation sugaring would actually look more like a bush than a stately 100-year-old maple.  Two-inch stems are optimum, Mr. Perkins said.  A single stem works fine — for a while.

The first year the top would be cut off to get the sap run.  Each year another six to 12 inches would be cut off the top of the stem to get the sap running.  But with a single stem, “eventually, you’re going to get to ground,” Mr. Perkins said.  A sapling with multiple stems, on the other hand, could last a very long time.

At the moment, the cost of production, for a variety of reasons, works out about the same as for a traditional sugarbush, Mr. Perkins said.

“Where this new method starts to get better is if you can plant saplings that have the genetics to be sweet trees,” he said.

And work has been done on developing particularly sweet varieties of maples, Mr. Perkins said.  Individual trees vary in sugar content, he said, and researchers were breeding for sweetness.  That work came to an end when reverse osmosis was introduced, he said.  Reverse osmosis removes some of the water from sap before it’s boiled, thus “sweetening” it and reducing boiling time.

“If we can increase the sugar content of sap to 3 percent, you’d go from 400 gallons an acre to 600 gallons,” Mr. Perkins said.

A plantation of particularly sweet trees would significantly cut the cost of production.  “If we could breed sweet trees and grow them fairly quickly,” the economics would be quite different, Mr. Perkins said.

The cost, and availability, of land is also a factor in sugaring today, he said.  “In Vermont right now about 50 percent of the optimal land for sugarbushes is being used for sugarbushes,” he said.  “The rest of it is mostly tied up.  There’s still land available, but it may not have the highest density, or people don’t want sugaring there.  This provides another option for people to continue to grow their operation.”

The idea of plantation sugaring, turning what is currently a semi-wild crop into a farm crop, causes some sugarmakers to raise an eyebrow — and laugh a little.

“It’s not too romantic,” Mr. Shelton said.  “One of my first thoughts was, boy, this is pretty far from tradition.”

“It does change the image if it becomes a cornfield type of thing, or sugarcane type of thing,” Mr. Couture said.

No, cutting the tops off saplings is not a traditional notion of sugaring, Mr. Perkins said.  “But, unfortunately, the traditional image doesn’t represent the reality of what’s out there.  We don’t have people walking around with horses anymore.”

He said he doesn’t see the new way of sugaring replacing the traditional methods anytime soon, although it could augment some operations and buffer the entire industry against disaster.

So far, the reaction from sugarmakers has been generally positive, Mr. Perkins said.

“I’m definitely open to seeing how it works,” Mr. Shelton said.  “They’re thinking out of the box, and I think we need to think out of the box for the future.  Everything old school is just getting uprooted.  It’s important to be thinking in these terms.”

Steve Wheeler at Jed’s Maple in Derby, which produces organic syrup and maple products, said he had not yet even heard about sugaring maple saplings.  “We’re set up so traditionally here that it’s kind of a shock,” he said.

He said he hasn’t formed an opinion, but sees no reason why sugaring in a whole new way wouldn’t work.  “I don’t see why you can’t approach it like traditional farming.”

Mr. Wheeler said he has great respect for the UVM researchers.  “Proctor has some really neat ideas,” he said.

contact Tena Starr at tenas@bartonchronicle.com.  For more free stories like this one, see our editor’s pick category on this site.  We hope these will interest you enough to make you want to subscribe to our online or print editions.

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Welcome to the era of Big Sugar

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Adam Parke stands at the collection point that pumps sap from steep hills to the east and west of the Hinman Road in Glover. Photos by Chris Braithwaite

by Chris Braithwaite

 copyright 3-13-2013

BARTON — When Adam Parke and Todd Scelza “sweetened the pans” and drew off their first 165 gallons of maple syrup Monday night, it was the culmination of ten months’ work and an investment of a quarter of a million dollars.

It was also a demonstration of what has happened to one of this area’s oldest and most traditional enterprises.  Welcome to the era of Big Sugar.

Starting from scratch in May last year, Mr. Scelza and Mr. Parke have installed 11,700 taps over hundreds of acres of forest they’ve leased in Glover from Nick Ecker-Racz.

If all goes well, they’re looking forward to expanding to 15,000, perhaps 20,000 taps in future seasons.

That won’t make them the biggest operators in the business.  Mark Colburn in West Glover has 21,000 taps this year.  And when Mr. Parke and Mr. Scelza needed some very large tanks to handle their sap, they got them used from a sugarmaker in Franklin County.  With about 100,000 taps, the seller found that his 4,500-gallon sap tanks were just too small.

All of the time and money the partners have put into their operation since last May is culminating this week in a productive machine with a great many moving parts.

Most of the taps yield their sap to a collection point that sits in a low, swampy area just off the old Hinman Road.  The sap is drawn to two big tanks by a vacuum pump that reaches deep into the forest to the east and west through two-inch dry lines.  The sap actually flows through a parallel set of wet lines, connected at strategic points to the dry line.

Mr. Ecker-Racz collects that sap in a tank on a trailer behind his tractor and hauls it south on the Hinman Road, across a ford over a small creek, and a short distance west on the Shadow Lake Road to a big insulated shipping container that houses a shiny new reverse osmosis (RO) machine.  Another big tank receives the sap, along with sap pumped directly from taps in another section of the operation, on the south side of Shadow Lake Road.

A smaller tank sits beside the sap tank in the barn the partners have built, collecting a gush of concentrated sap from the RO machine.

That concentrate gets pumped up into a tank in the back of a veteran dump truck and hauled through Glover and Barton to Mr. Parke’s farm, high at the end of May Pond Road.

There it is boiled down into syrup in a six-by-16-foot evaporator fired by two oil burners.

The whole exercise is a fascinating mix of old and new.  In Mr. Parke’s sugarhouse the back pan is 30 years old.  He bought it from the defunct American Maple Company in Newport, and it was patched up under the supervision of Bucky Shelton at the new sugaring supply business in Orleans, Lapierre USA.

But the front pans are gleaming new stainless steel.  There are three of them taking up the space of the traditional front pan, and a fourth to serve as a spare.  The point, the sugarmakers explained, is that one pan can be lifted out of place and replaced while it is being cleaned.  Frequent cleaning comes with the RO-enriched concentrate that arrives from Glover.  It drops a lot of niter as it boils, and that can’t be allowed to coat the bottom of the pan.

“With RO sap, you’re kind of right on the edge of disaster all the time,” said Tim Perkins, who directs UVM’s Proctor Maple Research Center in Underhill.

He’s seeing a steady growth in the maple industry.  Exact numbers are hard to come by, Mr. Perkins said, but his estimate is that “the maple industry has been growing quite rapidly over the last five years, on the order of 4 to 5 percent a year.”

New technology has been key to the industry’s growth, Mr. Perkins said.

“Anybody of a reasonably decent size is going to have a very efficient operation with a modern tubing system, vacuum lines, RO, and very efficient evaporators.”

A vacuum system like the one Mr. Parke and Mr. Scelza laid out with the help of a consultant from New York State can double the yield per tap.

The ratio of taps to syrup, Mr. Perkins said, “used to be a quart per tap in a good year on buckets.  Now, tapping forest trees, you can get half a gallon per tap year after year, if you’re doing everything right.”

“If you don’t have vacuum,” Mr. Shelton said flatly, “it’s like having a ski area without snow making.”

To handle all that sap most large sugarmakers have turned to reverse osmosis.

David Marvin of Butternut Mountain Farm in Morrisville recalled starting out 40 years ago with 4,000 taps.  “That was a pretty big deal,” he said.  His operation currently has 16,000 taps.

“The real key has been reverse osmosis,” Mr. Marvin said.  Without it, sugarmakers were burning between four and four and a half gallons of oil to make a gallon of syrup.  With RO, Mr. Marvin said, it takes two quarts of oil to make a gallon of syrup.

Without RO, Mr. Marvin said, “we wouldn’t have this expansion in the industry.  The consumer wouldn’t be able to afford the energy we’d have to use to make the product.”

Though most large-scale sugarmakers burn oil, Mr. Perkins at the research center noted that the technology of wood-fired rigs continues to advance.  While wood-fired rigs have long relied on a supply of forced air at the bottom of the fire pit, the new models add a flow of air over the top of the fire to burn gasses that would otherwise go up the stack.

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Bucky Shelton stands beside the Hurricane at Lapierre USA in Orleans. The rig applies new technology to the time-honored practice of burning wood. Photos by Chris Braithwaite

Mr. Shelton has one such rig on display at the Lapierre store in Orleans.  It’s a three-tiered beauty in stainless steel called the Hurricane, and it carries a price tag of $36,212.  Its top unit, called a piggyback, concentrates the sap on its way down to the evaporator.

For Mr. Parke and Mr. Scelza, finding a very large, untapped hardwood forest rich in maple was key to their enterprise.  Mr. Ecker-Racz bought his land at the end of the Perron Hill Road in 1968 and moved onto it in 1970.  Since then the trained forester has cultivated it much the way others might care for a garden.

He’s culled for firewood, harvested the softwood several times, but left the best hardwood standing for saw logs — or for sugaring.

He scorns the idea of clearcutting, or even selectively cutting everything over a certain size.  Though they are rare these days, he said, “you will find a few old-time Vermonters who understand the genetics of wood.  It’s just like a dairy herd.  You don’t milk your culls and beef your best cows.”

Mr. Parke is clearly delighted to have found such a stand of maples.  “Nick is an exceptional forester,” he said of Mr. Ecker-Racz.

Mr. Parke and Mr. Scelza demonstrated a lot of ingenuity in getting set up for sugaring.  The barn on the Shadow Lake Road is a reconstruction of one Mr. Parke tore down in Orwell.  Years ago Mr. Parke picked up a couple of shipping containers and buried them at his farm as root cellars.  He dug them up and used one to house the RO machine, the other for the pumps and generator at the collection point in the swamp, where there is no power.

That military surplus generator proved too small for the job, so while he waits for a new one Mr. Parke is using a borrowed generator powered by his tractor.  As one neighbor noted, that requires 2 a.m. runs on his ATV to keep the tractor fueled.

When Mr. Ecker-Racz first broke out the Hinman Road with his tractor at the end of February, its front end fell off as it dropped into the open ford.

But he had it fixed in time to deliver the first loads of sap.  And on Tuesday morning with the RO machine sending a gush of concentrated sap into the tank, the two partners were clearly delighted to see their enterprise finally in production.

contact Chris Braithwaite at chris@bartonchronicle.com

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