In 2011, many sugar makers across the U.S. maple belt celebrated a return to more traditional winter and spring weather after the short, hot sugaring season of 2010. At the time of this writing, the syrup yields from various states have not yet been published by the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), but it appears that production was up from one end of the region to the other. This article will describe trends reported in April and May in an annual survey of approximately 220 producers. Most respondents were from Vermont, with a few from surrounding states, and together their operations represented a wide range in terms of size and technology used. Fifty-five percent of these sugar makers said that 2011 ranked as their best year ever in terms of syrup production.
Vermont is not only the leader in U.S. maple production by a wide margin, but also appears to have the greatest percentage of syrup produced using modern technology. Most of the poor yields in 2010 came from operations using older gravity sap collection methods, such as buckets and tubing without vacuum, which are much more subject to the vagaries of the weather and, therefore, suffer in a season that is too warm or has too few freeze-thaw cycles. There are many such producers in Vermont, but these are mostly small operations and together constitute a small percentage of the state's production. Thus, Vermont's total syrup production during the short season of 2010, according to NASS, was down only slightly (3 percent), compared to a 20 to 40 percent drop in the next largest syrup- producing states (New York, Maine and Wisconsin). Producers in this 2011 survey using gravity for sap collection averaged .206 gallon of syrup per tap; producers using vacuum tubing averaged .415 gallon per tap. Thirty percent of the respondents collected sap by gravity, but together they made less than 2 percent of the syrup.
Although some people described this year's weather as an "old-fashioned winter," one of the changes that emerged in Vermont, as well as elsewhere in the maple belt, is the earlier start to sugaring season compared to a few decades ago. While the first sap is not always boiled until March, many Vermont producers have abandoned the traditional tapping date of Town Meeting Day (early March) and start tapping in early to mid-February. A factor in this evolution is the increasingly large size of many operations, as it can take many weeks to repair tubing and tap thousands, or tens of thousands, of trees. Tapping in 2011 was often difficult, as many Vermont sugar bushes were hit with high winds this winter, with subsequent damage to tubing by falling limbs; additionally, very deep snow made travel through the woods slow. Despite the early start, cool weather kept the sap flowing in some Vermont sugar bushes until the last week of April - at least a third of all producers finished boiling two months after they started tapping, which is indeed a long season
The long sap season and the high yields seen by many producers were the result not only of favorable weather, but the frequent, often annual, replacement of parts of the sap collecting system, a practice that has become common in modern operations. A striking trend in recent years is the relationship between the age of spouts used and the subsequent sap yield. Research continues to show that older tubing systems, especially older plastic spouts, even when cleaned vigorously in the field or at home, decline in effectiveness as microorganisms become lodged in the plastic. This decline usually shows up several weeks into the season, or when the days are warmer. This year, for example, of the 23 producers on vacuum who made less than a quart of syrup per tap, only 12 had new spouts in 50 percent or more of their tapholes. Compare that to 22 producers who made at least a half-gallon of syrup per tap - 20 had new spouts in at least 90 percent of their tapholes. Manufacturers now offer a wide variety of spout designs and materials, including many two-piece spouts where the tip is intended to be replaced annually. Other factors are important in determining sap yield, such the type of pump and amount of vacuum applied to the taphole, the efficiency of the tubing system layout, and the amount of time spent in the woods during the sugaring season repairing leaks. While replacement of the spout or spout tip has become common practice, many producers no longer wash their tubing. All modern tubing systems use polyethylene tubing, which tends to stay clean in the off-season unless water or sap sits in it; a majority of producers, including many with very high sap yields, simply drain the last sap by pulling spouts with the vacuum pump running.
Much of the data from this year's survey followed trends seen in previous years; for example, producers continue to seek ways to reduce high energy costs. Almost 20 percent of vacuum systems in this sample included pumps with a variable speed drive, which reduces electricity consumption when sap flow is minimal. Reverse osmosis (RO), which removes some of the water from sap before it enters the evaporator, is used by most producers with 1,000 taps or more. Without this time and energy saver, syrup would be vastly more expensive, as it takes approximately 4 gallons of oil or 1/20 cord of wood to make a gallon of syrup from raw sap, while the use of RO (as well as modern steam-recovery devices) can reduce these amounts by as much as 90 percent while consuming relatively little electricity.
In this survey, of over 350,000 gallons of syrup made by respondents, 85 percent was made with the help of RO. Despite the considerable energy and labor savings achieved, some producers don't use RO (or vacuum) out of the belief that these technologies change the flavor of syrup. A counter to this is the result of many syrup contests held in recent years at fairs and field days, where the winner (the best flavored syrup) of a blind taste test has as often been a producer who uses all modern technology, including RO, as a producer using only traditional methods. Another concern that some producers have about modern systems is the effect of vacuum on trees. Research has shown no evidence of increased tree damage, or chemical changes to the sap, by the use of even a very high vacuum.
At the UVM Proctor Maple Research Center, a study is underway to determine whether high vacuum and the removal of more sap than was common decades ago might slow the growth of tapped trees, but no reports to date of trees tapped annually with vacuum have shown that they are less healthy than untapped trees. Another good sign comes this year as producers reported the depth to which they drill their tapholes; it is much shallower than the traditional 3-inch hole described in the literature a few decades ago. Few producers now tap deeper than 2 inches; many on vacuum tap 1.5 inches or less.
In addition to favorable weather, expansion of many operations played a role in what will undoubtedly be recorded as surging U.S. syrup production. Of the almost 900,000 taps utilized by the respondents in the survey I conducted, over 100,000 were added to these operations this year. Maple dealers have reported increases in equipment sales across the maple region. Bulk prices for syrup are relatively stable, which has encouraged more businesspeople to start or expand large operations. The end result will probably be a shift in the proportion of syrup made in the U.S. compared to the big player, Quebec. Expansion in that province, which still dominates world production, is currently held back by a quota system imposed by the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers. Many factors, such as future Federation policies, and the exchange rate between Canadian and U.S. dollars, will be in play when it comes to predicting the long-term size of the industry and the price of syrup. One thing is certain: sugar makers must always look to expand marketing of their products if they hope to continue a profitable business making this great product.
The author is maple specialist with University of Vermont Extension and Proctor Maple Research Center in Underhill Center, Vt.