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A Sugaring Advance? Researchers Would Tap Saplings; Traditional Sugarers Skeptical

  • David Ellison, of Groton, Vt., taps a maple in the sugarbush of Mike Emerson in Topsham, Vt. Monday, February 3, 2014. A new method of collecting maple sap developed by the University of Vermont would have maple producers cutting the tops off maple trees between three and 11.5 inches in diameter to draw sap up from the roots.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    David Ellison, of Groton, Vt., taps a maple in the sugarbush of Mike Emerson in Topsham, Vt. Monday, February 3, 2014. A new method of collecting maple sap developed by the University of Vermont would have maple producers cutting the tops off maple trees between three and 11.5 inches in diameter to draw sap up from the roots.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Derick Boyce of Newbury, Vt., pulls a sap line tight while placing new taps in a sugarbush leased by his employer Mike Emerson in Topsham, Vt., Monday, February 3, 2014. Boyce has 3500 taps in his own sugarbush. "It's way more of a headache when you do it yourself," he said.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Derick Boyce of Newbury, Vt., pulls a sap line tight while placing new taps in a sugarbush leased by his employer Mike Emerson in Topsham, Vt., Monday, February 3, 2014. Boyce has 3500 taps in his own sugarbush. "It's way more of a headache when you do it yourself," he said.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • David Ellison, of Groton, Vt., taps a maple in the sugarbush of Mike Emerson in Topsham, Vt. Monday, February 3, 2014. <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    David Ellison, of Groton, Vt., taps a maple in the sugarbush of Mike Emerson in Topsham, Vt. Monday, February 3, 2014.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Purchase photo reprints »

  • Tim Troy, of Bath, N.H., places new taps and tubing on a line in a Topsham, Vt., sugarbush leased by his employer Mike Emerson Monday, February 3, 2014. Emerson taps about 18,000 trees and distributes much of his syrup through Websterville Highland Sugar Works. "How we do stuff, you can't even compare it to where we were even 10 years ago now." said Emerson of the technological advances in the industry. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Tim Troy, of Bath, N.H., places new taps and tubing on a line in a Topsham, Vt., sugarbush leased by his employer Mike Emerson Monday, February 3, 2014. Emerson taps about 18,000 trees and distributes much of his syrup through Websterville Highland Sugar Works. "How we do stuff, you can't even compare it to where we were even 10 years ago now." said Emerson of the technological advances in the industry. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • David Ellison, of Groton, Vt., taps a maple in the sugarbush of Mike Emerson in Topsham, Vt. Monday, February 3, 2014. A new method of collecting maple sap developed by the University of Vermont would have maple producers cutting the tops off maple trees between three and 11.5 inches in diameter to draw sap up from the roots.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Derick Boyce of Newbury, Vt., pulls a sap line tight while placing new taps in a sugarbush leased by his employer Mike Emerson in Topsham, Vt., Monday, February 3, 2014. Boyce has 3500 taps in his own sugarbush. "It's way more of a headache when you do it yourself," he said.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • David Ellison, of Groton, Vt., taps a maple in the sugarbush of Mike Emerson in Topsham, Vt. Monday, February 3, 2014. <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Tim Troy, of Bath, N.H., places new taps and tubing on a line in a Topsham, Vt., sugarbush leased by his employer Mike Emerson Monday, February 3, 2014. Emerson taps about 18,000 trees and distributes much of his syrup through Websterville Highland Sugar Works. "How we do stuff, you can't even compare it to where we were even 10 years ago now." said Emerson of the technological advances in the industry. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

Over the past three decades, the art of making maple syrup has been dramatically altered by the use of technology. Webs of plastic tubing draw sap from trees under vacuum pressure, and before the sap is boiled it is often concentrated by reverse osmosis machines that remove most of the water.

But for the most part, the main elements of the sugarmaker’s art have remained the same: Sap collected from thick stands of mature sugar maples is boiled down in a sugarhouse’s evaporator pan. Those two elements — the forest and the fire — have been constants since before European settlers colonized New England.

So a new method of harvesting sap developed by the University of Vermont’s Proctor Maple Research Center could dramatically alter one of those two cornerstones of the maple industry.

Tim Perkins and Abby van den Berg, two research professors at UVM, discovered four years ago that much of the sap collected from trees under vacuum pressure flows up from groundwater supplies, rather than down from the crown of tree. Initially, the sap flows down, but after a day or two, it begins to flow up, Perkins said. And after a day or two of that, the liquid within the tree would be gone unless it’s replenished, he said.

“The big finding for us is that we were pulling moisture directly up from the soil,” Perkins said.

That meant that the crown of the tree had little or nothing to do with sap production. Their next step was to cut the top off a tree to collect sap from it under vacuum pressure. Working with young trees, from 11/2 to 3 inches in diameter, this method produced a lot of sap.

What this means is that a sugarmaker could plant a field of maple saplings, cut off the tops and harvest far more sap than a forest of similar acreage would yield. A typical sugarbush produces around 40 gallons of maple syrup per acre of forest. The method Perkins and van den Berg are researching would yield more than 400 gallons for syrup per acre from a plantation of around 600 saplings.

While this new method of maple farming is still far from becoming a reality, sugarmakers are either reserving judgment about it, or expressing skepticism or even hostility.

“It’s in the research stage, so there are a lot of answers to be had in terms of the cost of production and long-term sustainability,” said Don Bourdon, the Windsor County director of the Vermont Maple Sugarmakers Association. “I think the jury’s still out on this,” he added.

Mike Emerson, of Emerson’s Sugarhouse in Newbury, said he fears the maple business would become more “corporate,” not unlike factory farms in other agricultural enterprises.

“Instead of it being a maple farm, it’s going to be a maple industry,” said Emerson, who is the Orange County director for the sugarmakers association. He also expressed concern that a signature product of North America could be made anywhere with a climate cold enough to produce the freeze-thaw cycles of northern states and Canada.

But Perkins and van den Berg, who first started talking about their research at maple conferences last fall, said they don’t see the method they’re working on as a replacement for the traditional one — the forest and the fire.

What it would allow a producer to do is plant trees and within five to 10 years start producing syrup from them. Under the traditional method it takes 30 years for a tree to reach maturity for tapping. It would also allow a producer to get back into the industry more quickly following a devastating hurricane or ice storm, Perkins said.

“We really just see it as another tool for sugarmakers,” he said.

It’s a tool that’s going to take time to develop. The plastic caps that go over the tops of the cut-off saplings need further development, and a manufacturer would need to believe that enough sugarmakers would buy them before being willing to mass produce them, Perkins said.

Also, sugar maple saplings aren’t widely available, as there’s no market for them yet, he said.

“None of these types of technological advances ever happen overnight,” Perkins said.

But it will happen. Prices for maple syrup are high, and maple producers are working to develop new markets for their products.

The most common question the researchers get from sugarmakers, Perkins said, is “how can I do this?”

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3219.