Maple Producer Shares Tips for Good Production

12/14/2013 7:00 AM
By Helen Margaret Griffiths New York Correspondent

NORWICH, N.Y. — Maple syrup production may bring to mind sap buckets brought in by horse and cart through the snow, and then reduced to syrup in boilers fired by woodstoves housed in a rustic building.

Other than on a very small scale — where maple syrup production is supplemental income or a hobby — this is no longer the method by which maple syrup is produced.

Those attending a recent Cornell Cooperative Extension workshop had the opportunity to visit two sugarhouses using state-of-the-art equipment.

Glenn Goodrich of Goodrich’s Maple Farm in Cabot, Vt., who has vast experience as a maple syrup producer as well as a tubing installer and equipment consultant, led the tour of two sugarhouses owned by the Wallings family of South New Berlin, N.Y.

Goodrich identified features that enhanced efficiency and would result in profitability. Kern and Susan Walling have been maple syrup producers for a number of years, whereas their son, Neil, and his wife, Tonya, recently established their own sugarhouse.

Beginning in the 1970s, technological advances were starting to be implemented in sugarhouses as well as in the sugarbush, allowing producers to get even a modest yield in a bad year. One of the main considerations was and still is how to reduce the amount of energy needed to produce syrup from sap. Depending on tree species and time in the season, it takes on average 40 gallons of sap to produce 1 gallon of maple syrup.

Reverse osmosis technology is a key player in allowing sugar producers to be more efficient users of energy. A reverse osmosis machine separates water from water-soluble solids and can often reduce the boiling time in half without having much if any influence on the flavor of the syrup. Goodrich sees reverse osmosis as being very important in the maple production system.

“I have built redundancy into my sugar production system. We have a spare RO machine so if one goes down, we can still function,” Goodrich said. But the machines are quite expensive and a producer may need to carefully look at the figures before making a double investment.

Having sufficient storage for sap is critical and as Goodrich told the attendees, “more storage is better; you need to be able to cope with emergencies.”

At both sugarhouses, evaporators looked new and at the one sugarhouse, it had only been used for one season. Goodrich said that even a 20-year-old well-maintained stainless steel evaporator can look new. Evaporator size is determined by how many taps one plans to install in the sugar bush. But irrespective of size, stainless steel is the material of choice for evaporators.

“Try to forecast how big you want to become and build your system for that rather than having to continually replace and add on,” Goodrich said, speaking from experience.

There was much discussion on the types of fuel used for syrup production. Kern Walling said he now uses fuel oil instead of wood.

“During a sap boiling day we have an hour extra at each end of the day,” Kern Walling said.

The labor reduction is also significant earlier in the year when the wood is cut and carted out of the sugar bush down to the sugarhouse. Maintenance of the sugar bush has to be continued irrespective of fuel type used, but the labor involved is less when the evaporator is not wood fired. Even though he’d rather see wood burnt over fuel oil, Goodrich said it may not be the best option when the sugar operation reaches a certain size. Using Kern Walling’s figures, where he produced 1 gallon of bottled syrup selling for $50 and using about 0.4 gallons of oil to produce, the price of oil would need to rise significantly before there were financial concerns.

Wood pellets were discussed and Goodrich said he believed they were a very good option for a number of reasons. In addition, he thought the price wouldn’t fluctuate like oil; currently it’s about 60 percent of the cost of oil.

Methods used for marketing maple syrup or value-added products will depend upon geographic location. If the farm is not located on a well-traveled road or near a tourist center, having an on-site shop may not be worthwhile.

“People buy online and don’t even seem to care about shipping costs,” said Susan Walling, who runs the on-site shop that she and her husband have at the South Berlin sugarhouse. They also sell at farmers markets in New York City.

Goodrich told attendees to “bring your customers into your super clean sugarhouse before letting them into the shop and educate them as to what goes into syrup production. Emphasize the long hard hours etc., that way they will feel $50 plus a gallon isn’t so much and may even think it isn’t enough.”

Selling syrup wholesale is another option. Neil and Tonya Walling currently sell the majority of their syrup wholesale to Highland Sugarworks in Vermont.

Demand for maple syrup is high, which Goodrich attributes at least in part to the fact that people are becoming more health conscious and maple syrup is an excellent source of manganese, zinc, calcium and potassium.

Maple trees grow almost exclusively in the northern U.S. and parts of Canada. The sugar belt extends from Wisconsin to Maine, with four Canadian provinces. Japan uses a lot of maple syrup and some has been produced in Japan, but the majority of imported maple syrup comes from Canada.

In South Korea, sap is collected from Acer mono, but this is drunk rather than concentrated into sap. Currently, Quebec produces three quarters of the world’s maple syrup, but Goodrich believes there is a lot of potential for increased production in New York. Even though red maple has not been considered as desirable for maple syrup production as sugar maple, it shouldn’t be overlooked, as Kern Walling has a red maple sugar bush.

Leasing land can result in a win-win for sugar maple producers and landowners. But tapping can devalue veneer quality trees due to disfiguring of the lumber. Such lumber is of great value, as it is considered to be aesthetically appealing by some consumers.

“The way in which the tapping of the trees is performed is critical. It has to be done right and using the Precision Tapper can greatly assist,” Goodrich said.

Setting up the tubing in the sugar bush requires some expertise, but Goodrich said one of the major things is “no leaks.” Using a vacuum system has gotten mixed results, with some growers suggesting it can result in tree damage. Goodrich said university studies indicate that if a system is set up correctly, there is unlikely to be any tree damage.

A vacuum system can be the only way to enhance productivity and in most cases is essential to attain half-gallon production per tap. Installing a vacuum system is an additional expense and Goodrich believes that for a sugar bush with less than 600 taps, it may not be worthwhile. Getting the right vacuum system is important and Goodrich recommends producers find a dealer who really understands the system.

Most of the dealers are maple syrup producers themselves so “check to see how much sap/tap they’re getting, that will tell you if they know what they’re doing,” Goodrich said.

Servicing the vacuum system and regularly checking the lines in the sugar bush is critical. Goodrich said sprouts need to be replaced every year to reduce tree damage and maintain productivity.

Goodrich encouraged those already in the maple syrup business to continue and those considering it to get started.

“This is a prime geographic location for good syrup” he said.

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