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Maple syrup production is an ongoing science

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It isn’t your grandfather’s sugarbush anymore.

While the tradition of collecting sap on crisp early spring days from buckets hanging from metal spouts on stately sugar maples and boiling it down over a primitive wood-fired arch remains a part of the romance, the maple syrup industry has gone high-tech.

“This is all science,” Jeffrey E. Jenness said, as he walked around the Orebed Sugar Shack in DeKalb that he operates with his wife, Lori, and other family members.

In many maple syrup operations, plastic tubing has replaced buckets. Vacuum pumps increase sap flow. Reverse-osmosis machines separate water from sugar concentrate. Sophisticated evaporators speed up production.

The future could even include plantations of chest-high saplings, their crowns lopped off and covered with plastic bags into which sap gushes out under vacuum pressure.

Cutting edge in DeKalb

Mr. Jenness, a member of the state Maple Producers Association board, taps 1,600 trees with 17 miles of plastic tubing. Water-cooled vacuum pumps lower the atmospheric pressure in the tubing system, which prompts the sap to flow more freely.

At Orebed Sugar Shack, the collected sap passes over an ultraviolet light that eliminates 80 to 90 percent of bacteria. The sap then flows through a reverse-osmosis machine, where semipermeable membranes allow water under pressure to pass through, which increases the sugar content of the remaining sap by anywhere from 4 to 10 percent.

“This was originally designed for desalination on submarines. The water, we use that to clean,” Mr. Jenness said. “In the ’50s, sugarmakers started playing with it. It’s come a long way in the last 15 years. It’s like a giant sponge that takes the water out.”

Reverse osmosis has become a common piece of equipment in the modern sugar shack, said Michael L. Farrell, the maple program coordinator for Northern New York and director of Cornell University’s Uihlein Forest in Lake Placid.

“Just about every large producer has that,” he said.

Instead of five gallons of oil burned to make a gallon of syrup, reverse osmosis can reduce the amount of oil used to as little as a quart, Mr. Jenness said.

Whatever concentrate is on the reverse osmosis tells him how many gallons of syrup he can make.

The sugar concentrate heads to a preheated hood where its temperature is brought up to 200 to 210 degrees before it goes into the evaporator. In Mr. Jenness’s case, the evaporator is enhanced with additional flues.

“I have 25 percent more boiling surface,” he said.

He favors an oil-fired evaporator.

“I can boil every drop of sap,” he said. “It is instant-on. Seven minutes from the time I turn it on, I’m making syrup. It’s that fast.”

Minerals are filtered out of the syrup before it is bottled. Syrup can be graded by eyeballing it and comparing it with a test kit, but Mr. Jenness prefers a transmittance analyzer that gives the color class to the tenth of a percent.

“I do everything electronically,” he said.

computers hit the sugarbush

One of the challenges that producers face is the damage squirrels and deer do to plastic tubing, but wireless monitors just coming on the market will help.

A system made by Tap Track Technologies in Ontario consists of solar battery-powered radio units that monitor pressure and transmit information to a computer or smartphone. Smartrek, a Quebec company, has a similar system that runs on 3xD batteries to show leaks in tubing.

“The most important thing is the vacuum that can pull the sap out,” said Martin Carrier, vice president of Smartrek. “With this, you can be way more efficient and increase productivity. I’m a sugar maker myself, so I pretty much know the needs.”

Smartrek began testing its wireless system in three sugarbushes last year and also offers a tank level sensor, among other products.

“This year, we’re in 40 sugarbushes, which is more than I thought,” Mr. Carrier said. “We’re getting ready to launch more products for hobbyists.”

Uihlein is using a remote vacuum-monitoring wireless system for the first time this year.

“It works really well. It pinpoints exactly what’s going on in the sugarbush. We’ve never had that before,” Mr. Farrell said. “Within five to 10 years, all large-scale producers will have it.”

Sugarbush research is ongoing into how to increase sap yields and profitability.

A recent study led by Mr. Farrell and Brian Chabot, a Cornell University professor, determined that regular replacement of critical parts of tubing, such as the droplines and spouts, can increase production by cutting down on bacterial and yeast buildup.

“If you do spend the money, it’s going to pay off,” Mr. Farrell said.

Other research topics include tree improvement, ginseng growth in a sugarbush, costs of different fuels, sulfite in maple syrup, one or two tapholes and high vacuum in gravity tubing.

short trees, tall on sap

What may be the most revolutionary research in years came about by accident when Timothy D. Perkins and Abby van den Berg, of the University of Vermont Proctor Maple Research Center, cut off the top of a maple tree to learn more about sap flow to improve vacuum systems.

To their surprise, the sap kept coming and coming under vacuum pressure. The researchers theorized that they were actually pulling water out of the ground through the tree. According to their work, mature trees are not needed for maple syrup production.

“It isn’t something we developed to replace the current picture,” said Mr. Perkins, director of the research center. “It was developed for certain applications.”

The owner of a sugarbush decimated by wind, ice storm or Asian longhorn beetle could be back in production within 10 years using the sapling method or wait 50 years for full-growth trees, he said.

The method also could be useful where land prices are high.

“We’ve been doing a lot of economic models,” Mr. Perkins said.

The researchers estimate that the cost of production for plantation plantings will be roughly the same as with a traditional sugarbush if the land is already owned.

Mr. Farrell said he doubted plantation plantings would catch on because of the cost of establishing a planting and maintaining it.

“It could work, but why would you do it?” he said.

Mr. Jenness had a similar feeling.

“It sounds good, and I suppose if you had no other choice you could try it,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to fly. It’s too much work.”

William L. MacKentley, St. Lawrence Nurseries, Potsdam, had a more visceral reaction.

“That’s a technology I definitely think is crossing the line,” he said. “It’s a sick technology. It gives no respect. You no longer work with nature. We don’t know limits.”

Plantation plantings are not meant to replace the sugarbush, Mr. Perkins said.

“It looks weird. Because it is so odd, sometimes people have a gut reaction,” he said. “Nature is brutal. Out of a million seeds, maybe 100 live.”

Advances are not for everyone, he said.

“You still find people not using tubing, not using vacuum, not using R/O,” Mr. Perkins said. “That’s OK, but they shouldn’t stop those who use them.”




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