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Tapping, solar, and sugar maples

Sugarmakers explore new ways to conduct a timeless business

BRATTLEBORO—Show of hands: Who knows sugar-makers can make syrup from tree varieties other than the sugar maple?

Varieties of sugar-producing trees, and incorporating renewable energy into sugar-making operations, topped discussions at the Windham County Maple Association’s annual meeting.

The meeting was held in the community room of Brattleboro Savings and Loan on Nov. 6.

Michael Farrell opened the meeting, discussing both his new book and expanding the sugar industry. The tree resource and technology side of the sugar industry is strong, he said. To expand, the industry must increase the numbers of maple consumers.

Farrell specializes in growing the sugar-making economy and directs the Uihlein Forest at Cornell University’s Sugar Maple Research & Extension Field Station in Lake Placid, N.Y.

His new book, “The Sugarmaker’s Companion: An Integrated Approach to Producing Syrup from Maple, Birch, and Walnut Trees” (Chelsea Green Publishing) addresses building a sugarmaking business taps-to-syrup.

“There’s no shortage of trees,” said Farrell about the sugar maple industry.

The industry could easily increase production, he added. But consumption must also increase or sugarmakers won’t turn a profit.

According to Farrell, farmers produced more maple sugar in the 1800s, compared to today, despite their relatively unsophisticated technology and having fewer sugar maples.

Farrell said per capita maple syrup consumption in the United States between 1975 and 2009 has risen from 1 ounce to less than 3 ounces.

“Which is pathetic,” he said, adding that per capita consumption in 1860 hovered around 27 ounces.

“Certainly, we can do better than that,” Farrell said.

Untapped resource

In the United States, Vermont leads the maple industry. Not because it has more trees, but because it has a strong industry and marketing campaign, Farrell said, explaining that in New York, “everyone thinks only Vermont is the queen of maple.”

Trees in general remain an untapped resource for the sugarmaking industry, Farrell said.

Sugar maples produce the sweetest sap and are the easiest to work with in producing syrup, he said. But more than 120 maple tree types produce syrup-worthy sap.

Farrell estimates the industry contains millions of potential taps between sugar maples and red maples alone.

People can tap maple trees in every state in the U.S. except Hawaii, Farrell added.

Other trees yielding sap with at least a 2 percent sugar content include big leaf maples in the Northwest, red maple, and boxelder, also called Manitoba maple. Black walnut and butternut also produce sap that readily mixes with sugar maple. Sycamore and shagbark hickory also enjoy small markets, Farrell said.

Some portions of the industry don’t boil the sap but rather treat it as a drink similar to coconut water, Farrell said. He cited here the popularity of the Korean drink acer mono, also called painted maple.

Birch trees have proved a strong industry in Alaska. Farrell referred to birch syrup as a novelty item popular in culinary circles, but in his experience, from a batch he made, it doesn’t taste very good. As well, the sap’s sugar content tends to be low. (The lower the sugar content the more work and fuel it takes to boil the sap into syrup.)

Still, birch trees don’t require freezing nights to run their sap.

“Once [the sap] starts running, the game’s on,” Farrell said.

According to Farrell, widening the varieties of trees for sugarmaking has two benefits. The first is an opportunity to expand consumer markets. The second benefit is increasing a forest’s diversity rather than the industry’s tendency toward a monoculture of sugar maples.

Sugarbushes also make great ginseng, wild leek, and shag mushroom habitats which can up a farmer’s base of value-added products.

When trees are no longer productive for sap, he said. The sugarmakers can harvest the old trees for timber products.

Regarding possible effects of climate change on the sugar maple industry, Farrell said he wasn’t concerned.

Some sugarmakers worry that as the climate warms, Vermont will lose its freezing nights that prompt sap to flow.

With technology, “we can adapt to climate change,” he told a skeptical audience. “Even with bad weather, we can get good yields.”

Farrell said beech trees, considered an invasive species, posed a bigger threat to maple trees than climate change.

Solar sugaring

Two Massachusetts-based sugarmakers spoke to the association membership about converting their sugar operations to run on solar power.

Tom McCrumm and J.P. Welch took advantage of Massachusetts’ net-metering law and federal tax incentives to install solar panels.

According to McCrumm of South Face Farm on Ashfield, Mass, farmers should start with an energy audit to determine if their land and operation will benefit from running on solar.

Each farm’s set-up and needs will be unique, said McCrumm.

One incentive program in Vermont funnels federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act monies through the Renewable Energy Resource Center, a project of the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation. The project supports small-scale solar, wind, and micro-energy installations for private residences, farms, schools, businesses, and local or state government buildings. To learn more, visit rerc-vt.org.

Vermont law also allows for net-metering projects. Electric utility companies — in Windham County, that’s Green Mountain Power — purchase the solar power at a set rate from the grid during the day when the panels are producing power. The electricity company then credits the installation owner’s utility bill.

McCrumm paid about $14,000 out-of-pocket for a $32,000 solar installation. The solar panels paid for themselves within three years. Most solar projects have an expected lifespan of 25 years. His panels sit on the roof of his sugarhouse. His operation has between 3,800 and 4,000 taps.

“It’s kind of a no brainer I think,” said McCrumm.

McCrumm added that he operates his sugarhouse the same as before; the only change is he no longer pays for electricity because the panels produce enough to cancel out his electric bill.

Welch of Justamere Tree Farm in Worthington, Mass., installed about 20 panels, each capable of generating 230 watts. The panels are installed on pole mounts. He adjusts the panels’ angle seasonally which allows him direct sun all year. The panels power his sugar house and barn. JP’s sugar operation has 4,500 taps and no electricity bill.

According to a fact sheet from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Vermont produced about 40 percent of the maple syrup in the United States in 2013, or about 1,320,000 gallons.

According to the Windham County Maple Association’s 2012 meeting minutes, the average amount of syrup per tap was a quart. The numbers have since increased to a half-gallon per tap.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #234 (Wednesday, December 25, 2013). This story appeared on page C1.

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