by Elizabeth A. Tomlin
Maple trees not only bring us beauty as they turn color in autumn, but they are productive too, and can actually bring in a bit of profit to landowners that are fortunate enough to have a good maple tree stand.
This year alone Vermont sugarhouses once again led the nation in maple syrup production, providing nearly half of the maple syrup produced in the U.S., with, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), a total of 1.94 million gallons – 46.6 percent of total production in the nation.
New York State was the second largest producer, with a recorded 806 thousand gallons, and Maine was the third largest producer, with 539 thousand gallons.
Andy and Donna Hutchison of Mount Pleasant Sugarworks in Leicester, VT, say they started sugaring on an open fire with only seven taps in 1987.
“We made smoky-flavored syrup that year,” Donna recalled. “We currently boil from 5,000 taps.”
Andy, who is also a consulting forester and partner in Hutchison Forestry, Inc., had to decide on whether to harvest the maple for timber or tap them for sugar.
“We opted to tap the trees in 1989 and 1990. However, when a veneer quality log is found, it is cut for timber,” he explained.
Hutchison said that “ignorance is always an obstacle when starting a new adventure” and Andy made it a priority to attend maple tours and classes, and to work at the county fair sugarhouse, gaining knowledge along the way.
Andy’s philosophy is “striving for a tight, high production sugar woods.”
Hutchison said on average, traditionally, a bucket (gravity) operation is expected to produce one quart of syrup per tap per year. By adding vacuum and current information, each sugarbush would target a half-gallon of syrup per tap per year.
Donna explained that maple sap runs when the pressure inside the tree is greater than the pressure outside the tree. “When a hole is put in the tree, a person’s thumb cannot hold the sap in. It will squirt out. The sap comes from all over the tree to the hole.” Putting two holes in the tree will divide the pressure between the holes.
“We start tapping a tree when it is 10 inches in diameter and if one hugs a tree and their fingers do not touch – and the tree has a healthy crown – then a second tap may be added. Most of our trees have just one tap,” Donna said.
Hutchison said thinning out the sugar woods to provide adequate space between them is necessary for creating larger crowns on the maples, as those are the leaves that promote sap production. This also helps the trees to stay healthy. Working with a professional forester is beneficial to creating a management plan for your sugarbush.
“The newest technology we have embraced is the 3/16-inch tubing,” commented Donna, adding that traditional tubing is 5/16-inch in diameter.
Hutchison credited Tim Wilmot for the research done in producing the 3/16-inch diameter tubing, which creates a natural vacuum likened to a siphon when dropping down a sloping hillside.
Wilmot, a maple specialist retired from the University of Vermont/State Agricultural College, has continued his work as a researcher for Dominion & Grimm, Inc.
Hutchison said using this method has made a remarkable impact on their production.
“This has produced a half-gallon of syrup per tap on a gravity system,” Donna remarked. “We had 140 taps that Andy was thinking about abandoning because they never produced well. He replaced that system with 3/16-inch tubing and that spring he needed to replace the gathering tank because it was too small! He has since been able to add more taps at the top of the hill in a hollow, using the suction to bring the sap up and out of the hollow and down the hill. What was a low priority bush has become a productive bush!”
“In every instance where the sap was running, sap flow rate in 3/16-inch lines exceeded the rate in 5/16-inch lines,” Wilmot confirmed. “The maximum rate recorded during a strong sap run on a 3/16-inch line with 22 taps was equivalent to a rate of over six gallons per day per tap, or approximately one gallon every 10 minutes through this line.
“Setting up a gravity system for maximum vacuum and sap yield requires an understanding of some of the differences between this type of system and one that relies on a vacuum pump. In a system where the vacuum is generated by a pump, the maximum vacuum will be closest to the pump, and may diminish with distance from the pump,” he added.
Although Wilmot said that slope is needed for gravity collection, he pointed out that it is not the only factor to consider. “Total height, and the vertical distance from the tree to the bottom of the line, is much more important than slope,” he said.
Among other considerations, Wilmot emphasized the importance of looking for leaks in the lines and making sure spouts are tight.
“For a successful gravity collection, much of what we know about best management under vacuum applies here: good tapping practices, new spouts, good quality materials, diligent checking for leaks,” Wilmot said.
He encouraged producers unfamiliar with 3/16-inch lines to read his research results concerning its use. This may be found online at the Proctor Maple Research Center website under “High Vacuum in Gravity Tubing” and “3/16 Tubing.”
Hutchison said producing and selling sap is profitable for any size operation and she has some advice to newcomers to the maple sugar industry.
“Start small and grow slowly,” she advised. “Learn, learn, learn! Go to maple meetings and get involved in maple organizations. Enjoy getting out into the woods and making it a family adventure!”