Business & Economy

Syrup from saplings may substitute for sugarbush production

 Abby van den Berg and Tim Perkins at Proctor Maple Research Center with new technology they are applying to maple saplings for maple syrup. Photo by Sally McCay/UVM
Abby van den Berg and Tim Perkins at Proctor Maple Research Center with new technology they are applying to maple saplings for maple syrup. Photo by Sally McCay/UVM

A new method of harvesting sap from young trees could revolutionize maple syrup production in Vermont — and potentially around the world.

Researchers at the University of Vermont’s Proctor Maple Research Center have discovered that sugar maple saplings produce the same sweet liquid that mature trees yield.

Sugar maple saplings can out-produce mature trees by an order of magnitude. A plantation-style crop of 6,000 saplings can produce 400 gallons of syrup per acre, while a mature sugarbush of 80 mature maple trees produces 40 gallons per acre, researchers say.

Saplings are ready to harvest in seven years, while mature trees take four decades to tap.

The implications could be significant for one of Vermont’s signature products — as a hedge against climate change, as a relatively cheap and fast way to grow a maple operation and as an opportunity for competitors to get a foothold in the market.

A maple sapling cut off and fitted with a system to collect sap. Photo by Sally McCay/UVM
A maple sapling cut off and fitted with a system to collect sap. Photo by Sally McCay/UVM

Tim Perkins, Proctor Center director and one of the lead researchers who made the discovery,  said the plantation method is not a replacement for traditional maple sugaring. He described the innovation as a complement to sugarbush production — in much the same way tube and vacuum technology recently transformed the industry.

Matt Gordon, the executive director of the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association, is reserving judgment about what the technology will mean for producers in the state.

“Everything about it is so new and so cutting edge, it just sounds like really interesting experiments,” Gordon said. “No one’s going to give up their old sugarbush with mature trees.”

Innovation’s threats, opportunities

Perkins said the sapling method might be most valuable to maple producers who have limited space or want to expand their operations quickly.

Sapling plantations could help sugarmakers recover more quickly from a devastating storm or pest infestation, for example.

Plantations also would give producers more control over growing conditions — potentially crucial in the face of anticipated climate change.

As the Proctor Center continues its research, Gordon said he will be most interested in what the developments mean for maple operations that struggle with the high cost of sugar maple forestland.

The plantation method allows for dense planting of saplings in an open field, and the critical feature that makes sugarbush land so valuable — a mature maple forest — becomes moot.

But that’s not to say maple saplings could be raised plantation-style anywhere, Perkins cautioned. The freeze-thaw cycle that turns starch into sugar is still needed to produce sweetness, he said. “But smaller trees freeze and thaw much faster,” he said.

Still, Perkins said, “You’re not going to see maple syrup being made in Florida. It’s going to be northern climates.” Nor does the thought of growing maple saplings in greenhouses sound to him like a lucrative prospect.

And due to the Northeast’s longstanding specialty in maple sugaring — from equipment manufacturing and repair to expertise in plant biology — Perkins thinks the maple brand will not escape the region any time soon.

“At least in the short-term, it’s unlikely that someone else will jump in and make maple syrup more economically than we can in New England,” he said.

Meanwhile, the University of Vermont is already doing what it can to maintain the state’s grip on the maple technology and brand. The school applied for a patent in 2012 for the vacuum process and all devices associated with plantation-style sapling production. That includes the contraptions Perkins and his colleague, Abby van den Berg, improvised to fit standard tubing to sapling tops.

The application was published in September 2013, at which time the researchers could finally go public with what they had been studying since spring 2010.

How it works, how it tastes

In the course of studying maple sap production, Perkins said, he and van den Berg realized that the sap they were collecting was being produced from tree roots — not from the tops of the trees, as had traditionally been assumed.

This was not an entirely accidental discovery. The scientists began studying sap production under different types of “flow conditions” — for example, in gravity versus vacuum collection systems. Partway through the season, Perkins said, it occurred to them to test the idea that sap was being produced from water being pulled up through the roots.

What they found reinforced the theory.

“The main thing was that, after a long thaw, sap flow didn’t stop.” Perkins said. The top of the sapling had already been cut off, so they knew the sap being pulled out by a vacuum was coming from below.

“But even with that, if you were only drawing from the tree itself, the moisture content would drop off,” Perkins said. “The only place it could be coming from was from water in the soil.”

This could mean that plantation-style production would be water-intensive, he said. But Perkins dismissed that as a problem in the Northeast climate, given spring snowmelt. If maple plantations were to require irrigation, he suggested, producers are already accustomed to working with tubing, so the new application would not be a stretch.

Trees survive the plantation method, but must be managed carefully to continue production without interruption from season to season. After sap production, the vacuum apparatus is removed from the top of the stem, at which point the tree regrows a compact, bushy crown, Perkins said. The following year, about 6 to 12 inches must be cut off again to freshen the top — attrition that growth can’t make up for. Eventually the tree would be trimmed to the ground.

Instead of resting the sapling for a few seasons to regenerate, Perkins said alternate methods of coppicing or pollarding keep the sap active.

The coppice method involves cutting the sapling close to the ground early, and letting it form multiple stems. A producer could alternate the harvest from one stem to another year after year, allowing sufficient growth on each stem before it’s decrowned again.

Pollarding allows the tree to grow 4 to 5 feet off the ground. This has distinct advantages in the Northeast, Perkins pointed out, because at that height deer cannot nibble the tops of the trees.

Perkins said in all cases, the chemistry of the sap is identical to that produced by mature maples. The taste is the same, too, he said — though he confessed he hadn’t yet tried it on pancakes.

“Our value in a sense is the science and not the syrup,” Perkins said.

While maple syrup from wherever it originates might be chemically identical, it also differs slightly in taste, as another UVM research is keen to point out.

In the Nutrition and Food Science department, Dr. Amy Trubek is extending a theory of a “taste of place” from wine to maple syrup. Trubek is refining a matrix of flavors — toasted, milky and fruity to name a few — that can be traced to environmental conditions such as soil conditions or the bedrock over which maple trees grow.

Gordon said he would not expect the syrup made from saplings to taste like anything other than maple.

“It’s the same product,” Gordon said. “It’s still just the sap from the maple tree that was boiled down and evaporated to make maple syrup.” Only the collection method is changing, and the industry has already weathered a lot of change, he and Perkins are quick to underscore — despite its traditional brand image.

“It’s definitely something very different,” Gordon said. “But tubing looks different than buckets. Most people don’t use horses to collect their sap anymore. Not everyone wears plaid in the forest.”

Before he’s ready to get either excited or worried about what the sapling “plantation” method could mean for Vermont producers, Gordon is more focused on products that lay false claim to maple’s cachet. He said the more popular maple syrup gets, the more shelves are stuffed with food items that claim maple flavoring without a bit of syrup in their ingredients.

Gordon said his organization wants to change consumer preferences and hopefully food manufacturing protocols to demand real maple syrup if a maple leaf and bottle will appear on a label.

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Hilary Niles

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  • Bill Olenick

    First they went to vampire sugaring (pipeline sucking sap out of the tree) now they are going to commit treeocide by decapitating young healthy maple trees in pursuit of our sweet tooth!
    What next…maple sprout sandwiches?

  • boots wardinski

    overproduction. prices plummet. mature tree producers are gone.

  • Bob Keller

    To be clear, Tim Perkins and Abby van den Berg would hold the patent and stand to profit from its development and use in the same way that they do from the check valve tap. And, in the same way that the check valve’s value was wildly overstated initially, 400 gallons an acre is a ridiculous figure. But that is to be expected when the only people doing the research are the ones profiting from the product.

    • jon williams

      Without knowing too much about the specifics of Abby and Tims agreements with UVM, I know that typically it is the employer (UVM) who owns and profits from a patent that is developed on company time. Inventors get their name on the patent which can have some value.
      Really surprised by so many negative comments on this topic. The whole idea is in it’s infancy and it seems there’s a lot of speculation about what will happen. I suspect as time goes on it will be clearer as to what the merits are of this technology and it will take its place in the choices a sugaring operation has at their disposal.
      My 2 cents worth….Jon

  • Faeterri Silver

    Just like old growth forests vs newer trees – the wood from newer generations is not as strong (both tensile strength and force resistance) as old trees. What are we doing with our forests in the name of progress? Again it is about $$$$ and what about the health of our trees (the pests may love this new technique).

  • Sally Shaw

    “Pollarding allows the tree to grow 4 to 5 feet off the ground. This has distinct advantages in the Northeast, Perkins pointed out, because at that height deer cannot nibble the tops of the trees.” vs. the normal, magnificent, mature 65-foot maples… oh yeah, I forgot about Vermont’s voracious antlered brontosaurus herd.

    • David Dempsey

      I have seen deer in my back yard stand on their hind legs and pull down apples that are at least 8 ft up in the air. They must have confused whitetail deer with the other common antler animal species in Vermont, the jackalope. Three feet is about their reach.

  • walter moses

    I can’t wait to cut down our farm’s beautiful sugar bush with 50 to 70 ft. trees to try this new method. Wow, what a great place it will be to go sit in my old age in the hot sun and listen to the thrushes. Does every thing in this state have to degenerate into production, production, PRODUCTION!!! I’ll bet this will get someone fired up in Hartford, Boston, or Brooklyn. Cut down the trees, put in a parking lot!! This is a further extension of the “research” that goes into changing grades of syrup to “conform” to national or global standards. No more grades like B or Dark Amber. Gotta describe the product like “icky,sticky, sweet sop. This is what we pay the Ag Department for??? Yeah, to be just like NY,MA,or NH. Sorry, got to vent at this nonsense.

  • Dave Bellini

    Isn’t this like giving dairy cows hormones to produce more milk? Then there will be a glut of syrup and we’ll have to get a government program to keep the prices high.

  • Seth Gillim

    Sounds like this could hold promise for farmers with flood-ravaged land in river bottoms. It will be interesting to study whether you still get the same ecosystem function (erosion control, sediment filtration) from a coppiced-tree plantation that one gets from a well-managed riparian buffer planting. There might be enough economic incentive in such a system to encourage farmers to stop plowing up to the water’s edge.

  • June Cook

    The operative words: “as a hedge against a climate change, as a relatively cheap and fast way to grow a maple operation ….” Once again, just make a statement and it becomes a “truth,” no facts needed, just state it is so. No concern for the future, for trees, and their benefit (cut the rainforest, we can do without it, oops, we’re saving that because it’s elsewhere). Trees absorb CO2 (the anathema — global WARMING) and emit oxygen into the atmosphere (OOPS-not concern with that fallout), no concern for wildlife, no concern about the benefit mature trees offer, but only immediate gratification of those who have an overblown case of “me-ism” and “greed.” Let’s not think about the future generations and a life filled with dwarfed (topiary) maple shrubbery or should we call it “bonsai sugaring.”

  • Ethan Rogers

    I’m really shocked about their ‘discovery’ that sap was coming from the roots. My grandfather, his neighbors and every single old-timer I knew had no doubts about this; surprising it only took a ‘research center’ nearly six decades to tell us what real syrup makers already knew.

  • Bill Olenick

    Final thought
    What about the great fall colors, from the sugar maples, that draws tons of money to the state.
    Are they going to come up and spend, to view orderly rows of sawed off 5’tall maples sprouting maple leaf Mohawk haircuts?

  • The most ridiculous over thought short sighted venture anyone could have possibly come up with. Any serious Steward of the land would have tears in their eyes with the cutting of each sapling. Painful, very painful.

  • Steven Farnham

    I’m surprised at the number and degree of negative comments to this article, but I confess, I agree with much of the sentiment that has already been expressed.

    How long before we see the day when only exceedingly wealthy people own the beautiful stands of “old growth” maple, and everyone else has gone the way of “scrub maple” farming?

    As if the threats of ALB (Asian Longhorn Beetle), and the economic and tax pressures over-harvest weren’t enough.

    And for what? Is there a maple sugar shortage? This looks very much like a solution looking for a problem to create.

  • Tom Haviland

    I bet some Private Equity Investment firm will be all over this

  • Adam MacLean

    I’m surprised by the reactionary and overwhelming negative comments. As somebody that works to design enterprise or homestead landscapes, I see this as an interesting opportunity for small-scale syrup production for families without a mature sugarbush. The thought that land stewards should tear up at the thought of coppicing a tree for productive purposes seems naive (coppicing extends the life and vigour of a tree) and points to a disconnect from productive ecology.

    • It sure is a strange thing to hear so many negative reaction from people who just reacting emotionally, not rationally. The idea of a coppiced hedge like production is not new, in fact this can be a very powerful idea, used in coordination with a large mature tree operation, to increase productivity on a multi species farmstead. If I was raising goats, the coppiced maple branches would function as tree hay for the goats. The increased production capacity of the method would also increase the total farm income for the small farmstead. Plus there are wonderful new products that can be developed utilizing this same methodology, such as coppicing beech trees and harvesting their sap for a specialty product as well, increasing diversity and introducing new sources for additional products into a local market. Coppicing trees as a method of increasing sap production does not mean that every tree must be coppiced, but rather that some trees could be, and new species of sugar trees could be grown and experimented with. Plus the sustainability issues with harvesting the tree-hay for your goats, and the huge amount of additional plants that could be planted in the area around the maple, beech, or other trees, such as ginseng, goldenseal, comfrey or hundreds of other medicinal herbs where there is a significant market demand already. Instead of reacting or rather overreacting at the thought of something new, look at the possibilities of something beautiful coming from the new innovations. A small organic farmer 23 years old, married with one child on the way, can now afford to buy 5 acres of beat-up farmland, and within just a few short years can be selling a premium quality beech syrup and maple syrup from his farm, and also be raising organic (or extremely clean) goat milk, cows milk, vegetables, fruits and berries, pork, beef, chicken and eggs, all from a small organic operation. Supporting the local farmers market and restaurants. It doesn’t have to go the way of industrial agriculture, in fact, these innovative methodologies help the creative and thoughtful sustainable farmer way more than the commercial operation, who has million of dollars invested in the status quo. Just my $0.02

  • This is SAD 🙁

  • Connie Godin

    I also think this is a bad idea, don’t like it at all.

  • ted devries

    The experiment has merit insofar as good sugarbush management often requires the removal of suppressed and competitor trees to reach an optimal stand density for syrup production. This thinning process frequently involves the removal (cutting) of maple trees, particularly in young ,immature stands, to afford good crown development in the residual bush. If producers can optimize sap production by tapping these saplings scheduled for removal then that is an added incentive to proper stand management. As a former producer-advisor to syrup operators, I have marked woodlots for stand improvement that involved the removal of thousands of maple saplings in a silvicultural approach that benefits the health of the residual woodlot and improves the present and future productivity of the bush for syrup production. I have greater difficulty appreciating the anticipated volume of sap production from pollarded saplings when the conversion of starch to sugar in any maple tree is dependent on the amount of reserves (starch) that tree contains. Simple tree physiology dictates that the more sapwood contained in the tree ( trunk,root,branches,twigs) the more storage space for starch. Granted, traditional tapping removes only a fraction of the tree’s starch reserve but a maple sapling does not constitute a large ‘starch bank’ compared to a 30” mature maple. As a maple syrup producer myself, I have deviated from traditional tapping practices by tapping trees less than the recommended 10” diameter; doing this in what I consider to be a viable, non-damaging management approach. The most important factor to woodlot management is understanding the silvics of the species you are dealing with. As a final comment, hard maple, a climax species, is the most easy woodlot tree to manage. It is highly shade tolerant, prolific, long living and site adaptable.

  • curt blanton

    I have not read all the comments, but am surprised by the negativity.
    I own 6 acres of farm ground that I cash rent. I receive enough money to pay the tax on the ground. That’s nice, we don’t have anyone building a house on that land.
    If I were to put just one acre into production of maple trees, and the yield is actually 400 gal of syrup/acre, I would net about 8k/year from the one acre.
    I realize that the numbers may be high, but…
    How is this any different than the beans or corn that they grow now?