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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