In the 1970s a burst of technological advances were made in the sugarmaking industry. Vacuum pumps, tubing systems preheaters and reverse-osmosis filters are some breakthrough advances that helped move the sugaring industry forward. These days, it’s harder to find innovations in sugarmaking. Two pioneers, Jason Gagne of Swanton, Vermont, and Joe Russo, COO of The Maple Guild in Island Pond, Vermont, are two who are attempting new ways to make and manage maple sugaring operations.

About five years ago Gagne made a discovery while working for the Chittenden County Water Department that led him to collaborate on a sugaring innovation with Doug Thompson from St. Joseph’s Island in Ontario that has transformed the way that they and others manage the vacuum systems in their sugarbushes. Gagne was able to gather information wirelessly about pressure levels in drinking water tanks all over the county without leaving his office. He wanted to transfer the same technology to his sugarbush. He shared his ideas with Thompson, a sugarmaker who produces an average of 20,000 liters of syrup a year. The two connected with Trevor Bryant, a software engineer in Sault Ste. Marie, and after over a year and a half of work, they had a new way to efficiently monitor a vacuum system lines and quickly respond to compromises in the lines. (Sugarmakers sometimes use vacuum or sap suckers to collect sap from maple trees as opposed to using gravity or collecting sap in buckets.)

Full barrels in storage at Sweet Tree

This collaboration resulted in a wireless vacuum monitoring system that gives real-time updates on the vacuum level in the sugaring lines. The Vermont Proctor Maple Research Center in Underhill, Vermont, along with the University of Vermont Extension Maple recently published in their Maple Digest, that “It has long been recognized that lowering the pressure in tubing by using vacuum pumps will increase sap yield (Laing et al., 1962, Blum and Koelling, 1968). For every additional inch of mercury (Hg) difference in vacuum, there is a corresponding increase in yield of approximately 5 percent to 7 percent (Wilmot et al. 2007, Perkins et al., 2012), with no significant change in sap chemistry or tree wounding (Wilmot et al., 2007).”

Quickly finding leaks

With Tap Track, Gange now knows the level of vacuum in every inch of his tubing system 24 hours a day and is able to quickly and efficiently repair compromised lines. This system optimizes his yield and gives him time to breathe during the hectic sugaring season.

Like all sugarmakers, Gagne knows that he has limited time to collect his sap so whatever he can do to be more efficient increases his chances of a successful season. With a 350-acre sugarbush and 18,000 taps, Gagne devotes all of his time and energy to preparing for the sugaring season.

Tap Track is designed to make sure that sugarmakers are able monitor vacuum levels, maximize sap flow and increase their profits. Gagne said, “If you get the leaks out, you produce more sap. Our test site of 20,000 taps in Ontario has resulted in more than a 5 percent increase of sap collection, which added over $15,000 to the bottom line and paid for the entire system in one season.”

Joe Russo in the warehouse at Sweet Tree

The first step in installing the system is mapping the woods and installing battery-powered radio units on trees throughout the woods. The batteries are powered by solar panels, a recent development in the system that means sugarmakers no longer need to take time and recharge batteries during sugaring season. Each unit contains sensors that monitor vacuums in up to six sap lines. Those sensors provide real-time vacuum data to the central database, which, in turn, displays the information on a digital map that can be accessed by the user 24/7 by using a cellphone or a computer.

The image that appears on the computer screen is a map of the entire sugar bush. Each line has a multicolored dot that indicates the status of that line. A Green dot means that the vacuum in that line is within specifications. Specifications can be changed by the user. Yellow indicates an issue with the vacuum in that line, and red indicates a significant loss of vacuum. That allows Gagne to immediately respond to serious drops in pressure and to plan his day so that he efficiently deals with his sap lines. In years past, Gagne and his hired man took three days to walk all his lines. When done, they would start again. He said, “With Tap Track, I only went into the woods three times all last year.”

On average, Gagne said the system costs $1.25 per tap and the return on the investment and benefits can be seen in one season. Sugarmakers not only save time by maintaining vacuum and fixing leaks faster, but are also able to reduce the risk of bacteria getting into the sap, ensuring higher syrup quality.

Jason Gagne with one of his battery powered radio units which monitors and provides vacuum data to the central database

Mapping and collecting data

There are other benefits to mapping and collecting data about his sugarbush. “One interesting thing we learned with data was that a vacuum leak on a lateral will freeze the mainline at the point of entry into the mainline. This now-frozen mainline may stay frozen for days depending on temperature, even above freezing. Knowing this, we now fix these types of leaks first allowing for sap flow and vacuum to be restored to the mainline.” Tap Track also shows inefficiencies in a system. He had a customer who, using the data obtained from Tap Track, realized that he was losing over 6 inches of vacuum (40 percent) in three areas of his sugarbush where he had installed sap ladders. He was then able to modify those areas and increase sap flow.

Jason Gagne with one of his battery powered radio units which monitors and provides vacuum data to the central database

Henry Marckres, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture’s Consumer Protection Chief and the man many consider to be Vermont’s maple syrup expert, has high regard for Gagne’s system. He said that it effectively addresses an issue that has plagued sugarmakers since the invention of tubing: how to find time to locate leaks. He has seen for himself how Tap Track keeps a sugar operation running and that it helps to increase overall production. There are other pressure tracking systems, but Marckres sees Gagne’s as unique. “Gagne’s approach is more of a sugarmaker’s approach than a technician’s approach so it’s user friendly for all sugarmakers,” including those who shy away from technology and don’t have a computer or smartphone.

During the offseason, Gagne makes adjustments to his lines from what he has learned the season before and is always looking for ways to expand and improve the monitoring system. A tinkerer, he is also busy finding new ways to lower his costs and increase efficiency. His latest improvement is building a wood chip system to fuel his evaporator. While Marckres said that wood chips have been used off and on for many years, he believes that Gagne is approaching the problem differently than it has been approached in the past.

A Tap Track wireless vacuum monitoring unit that is attached to a tree and sap lines in the sugarbush

Size matters

Three years ago, Wood Creek Capital Management, a Connecticut-based hedge fund, launched Sweet Tree Holdings LLC and hired long-time sugarmaker Joe Russo to design, run and manage their sugaring operations. Overwhelming in its size, Russo said, “The same rules of sugarmaking apply to large operations as they do to small ones.” The method of tapping, gathering, and boiling/concentrating sap to make maple syrup or sugar has not changed since the Native American taught the settlers 300 years ago. What has changed is the scope at which Russo now operates. Joe started out with the 600 trees he tapped back in the mid-’70s and then moved up to the 50,000-tap operation he operates in Belvidere, Vermont. Russo now applies those rules on an enormous scale. One of his innovations is the use of steam to boil the sap. Marckres has also seen Russo’s operation. He said, “I think the system of steam evaporation is so efficient it is astounding. It uses one gallon of propane to make five gallons of syrup.”

Drills for Russo’s crew

Russo has between 60 and 70 employees. They drill approximately 400,000 holes. They have 24 pairs of snow shoes and 24 drills with two batteries for each. There are 6,000 miles of vacuum tubing on 26,000 acres of forest. He has a fleet of four trucks, each of which holds 6,000 gallons of sap. The sap is collected and trucked to the facility where it is fed into 10 huge holding tanks, each with an 8,000-gallon capacity. The sap is filtered in 20 x 20 filter presses of which Russo has 20 and is then fed into one of eight RO machines that brings the concentration to around 80 percent. It then travels to one of four mammoth steam-fired evaporators that can produce 2,400 gallons of syrup an hour. Russo developed the steam evaporators named R7s (Russo 7’s) with engineers at CDL.

Snowshoes for Russo’s crew

Sanitation

Russo plans and executes everything by the numbers, and they are big numbers. He feels that the greatest innovation in his operation is sanitation. He demands that the massive sugaring operation is always neat, orderly, clean and organized. The plant holds four R7’s and after each boil, the evaporator and pipelines are completely drained, disassembled and steam cleaned. This cleaning process takes 3 to 4 hours. Russo said that a combination of “quickness and cleanliness increase the quality of the product.”

Image of a mapped sugarbush which appears on computers and smartphones

The Proctor Maple Research Center is also busy researching and testing its own innovations. Brian Stowe, Proctor’s Sugar Operation Manager, reports that the Center is currently working on modifying and improving the check valve spout and is researching tapping really small maple trees. He also sees promise in the newly developed Hyper Brix RO, which has a large syrup pan with a very small flue pan. Both Lapierre Equipment and H2O Innovations have models of this super concentrator that have just recently appeared on the market.

Image of a mapped sugarbush with one yellow line

As sugarmakers continue to improve the performance of their equipment and find new ways to accomplish labor intensive tasks with less manpower, the industry is sure to thrive into the next decade.