Sugarmakers will soon be heading into the woods to tap their trees and check their lines in preparation for Vermont's sweetest season. While the basic ingredient for maple syrup hasn't changed, how the sap is collected and boiled down has evolved over the decades -- and big changes could be on the way.
Work is ongoing at the University of Vermont's Proctor Maple Research Center in Underhill. But the latest discovery could help sugar makers increase their bottom line, or help others start their own Sugar Bush, by tapping saplings.
"No, in general saplings are not tapped at all. The thing most producers would do with their saplings is thin them out or they would naturally die as the forest matures. In this case we take what is an expense to the producer, who has to go in and thin them to generate a mature forest, and turn it into an income opportunity for them," said the Center's Tim Perkins.
Sugarmakers don't tap saplings because that can damage the internal portion of the tree. They are just not large enough to be able to withstand that wounding. But researchers found they can just cut the sapling tops off and the quality of the sap -- and syrup made from it -- is the same quality as syrup made from older trees. "We would simply cut the top off at a slight angle, put a bag on over the top with a rubber band to seal it, and a clamp. This vacuum tubing would connect to the regular tubing system and whenever it was warm enough for the sap to flow it would pull the sap up out of the stem and into the tubing system," Perkins said.
Surprisingly, this does not hurt the tree. It will re-grow its crown with new buds and branches into a compact crown where the tree can regenerate its sugar and grow again next season, and allowing sugarmakers to theoretically plant maple saplings like farmers plant crops -- packing a lot of sap potential into a relatively small piece of land.
Perkins says this new technology won't replace traditional sap production. He says it's just another tool that can be used.
"At my age now, technology blows your mind -- who knows what's going to happen," said David Isham. The Isham family has been making maple syrup at Maple Grove Farm for five generations. David's son, Michael runs, the operation now.
"I thought it's something new they are trying to do and this might not go in its current form, either there might be something differently from what they are doing today. It's like anything when it first comes out, it goes through different variations. It's not cut and dry at the beginning -- its a learning process for UVM as well," Michael Isham said.
One thing will not change, the basics that make up Vermont Maple Syrup. "I think what is interesting is it is still maple syrup. It's still sap that is boiled down to make maple syrup, so we have changed our collection methods over the years, it is just a different way to do it," said Matt Gordon with the Vermont Sugarmakers Association.
But don't expect to see fields of maple saplings being grown and tapped any time soon. Because the sap collection devices are not available commercially, and it is going to take time for the industry to produce the devices and write up the techniques for people to use them.
Saplings could also be used to replace trees damaged in an ice storm. It may take a large tree 40 to 50 years to recover. Using young saplings, a farmer could have a producing sugarbush again within 5-10 years.
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