We just returned from the International Maple Conference (yes there is such a thing!) in Burlington, VT.
Now let's be honest, usually conferences are not that exciting. But one where you can see a robot milk a cow or eat maple candy cooled inside of a vacuum can't be that bad can it?
This is what I do. How do you do it?
Actually the type of information sharing that happens at a conference like this can make a huge difference to a sugarmaker. It is far from typical to be able to go to a school or get trained to do what we do. At this conference we can not only learn from researchers and experts on the latest technology and best practices for producing maple syrup, but we also get tons of anecdotal evidence and ideas from talking with other sugarmakers as for what might work best in our own maple operation.
The first day we spent attending seminars on everything from marketing maple syrup to managing your sugarbush, from tubing research, to making maple candy. Looks like a regular conference, right?
Two talks I found particularly interesting were on the potential impacts of climate change on the maple sugaring industry and I am putting together a more comprehensive post on that... but to give you a hint of what's the come, an analysis of records going back to the 1800s show that the maple sugaring season is decreasing on average just over 1 day per decade, which might not seem like much to the average person unless you know that the season only lasts 30 days on average!
Hopping aboard the big cheese.
Well, it wasn't big and yellow, but the second day we hopped aboard a bus tour. We toured northern Vermont primarily Chittenden and Franklin counties. According to NASS (our National Agricultural Statistics Service that reports on pure maple syrup production) there are around 13 different states in the USA that make maple syrup. In the 2016 season, Vermont made 47.3% of the pure maple syrup produced in the United States, even though its total land area comprises roughly only 1.7 % of the maple syrup producing region. As we travelled around the area, we were mesmerized by the number of large operations within only few miles of each other. And when I say large, I mean 10,000 to 60,000+ taps.
You can go your own way...
One of the things that makes this industry so interesting is that every operation is unique. The lay of the land, the microclimate, the soil depth and nutrient content, the distribution and species of trees, the methods for sap collection, transport and storage, the size and type of evaporator, what is used for fuel, filtration, bottling, storage, and the list goes on and on. By the nature of the biz sugarmakers must be inventive and industrial to make their situation work, so it's cool to see how different producers McGyver their own process to their own unique situation to make the highest quality maple syrup possible.
Using renewable energy in maple sugarmaking
Here for instance, is the Davis Family Maple Sugarhouse in Underhill, VT. They run off of solar electricity, and operate a their evaporator off of biomass chips.
A view of the solar array of 78 panels on the sugar house roof.
Below you can see the biomass feeder - small wood chips are feed out of the auger up a conveyer belt into the sugarhouse where they are automatically fed into the evaporator.
Here is a nice display the Davis family put together with information on boiling with woodchips.
Don't you just boil sap?
Visiting this research facility gives you an idea of how dynamic this industry really is. There is constantly new technology and theories to test. Check out these dueling evaporators that allow these scientists to replicate conditions for experimental maple syrup batches.
For example, a recent study they have been working on is to see how the flavor and chemical composition of pure maple syrup changes when the sap has been concentrated to a higher concentration using a reverse osmosis machine (this is the process of increasing sugar concentrations in sap by forcing it through membranes at high pressure to remove water. You can read more about it on our website here).
Using these evaporators the scientists can take sap from the same run, concentrate it to different densities, and boil it down in as near as possible to identical conditions in these evaporators side by side to be able to compare characteristics of the resulting pure maple syrup.
I come from a forest research background, and a big part of my master's thesis involved quantifying the amount of variability that is often not accounted for in large scale ecological studies. So I really appreciated seeing these evaporators lined up side by side to allow scientists to be able to keep a number of factors in their study constant while changing only the variables they wish to investigate.
Here Mark shows us a map of the experimental sugarbush and where the research lab was on the map.
Below is an image of White Birch tree cookies cut in half (a tree cookie is a horizontal slice of tree, where you can see the growth rings of the tree, each ring representing one year of growth). These tree cookies are being used to quantify the scarring from tapping using photographic images. You can see from the cookie on the left what happens when a tree is tapped too young, the resulting scar can become enlarged giving you more nonconductive wood tissue (meaning the sap cannot move through it).
Below is a photograph of how the lab looked in 1947 when it was established as Proctor Farm, the first permanent maple research facility in the world.
Meet the Jetsons (or the Marsh's, Sweets, & Branons): High Tech Farming in Northern Vermont!
The Marsh family in Jeffersonville has been sugaring since 1909, but they are far from being stuck in their ways. This operation of over 10,000 taps is run by a family that is not afraid of pioneering new technology to increase the efficiency of their operation. They gave us a brief overview of the monitoring system they use to detect air leaks, frozen ball bearings, and anything else that can send a tubing system awry in the woods. Each of the mainlines has a sensor installed at the end of it that gives them real-time data on the temperature, inches of vacuum on that line and more. The monitor below shows the map of their sugarbush with data points for each mainline.
The rest of the sugarhouse is also set up for an efficient high-yield operation. Check out this beaut, a brand-new 15 foot long oil-fired evaporator that has a high pressure pan cleaner that sprays down the evaporator pans after each boil.
Another high-tech farm we visited, Sweets Farm, also makes maple syrup, but the maple wasn't the high point of the visit. Joan and Kelly, really nice down to earth people showed us their robotic milking operation. The Sweets have a herd of 225 milking cows, both Jerseys and Holsteins. They have a robotic milking system which allows cows to get up and get in line for a milking whenever they feel they need it. They also have a robotic calf feeder and feed pusher that goes around and pushes the feed in the barn below closer to the cows.
The whole operation was pretty impressive, and despite the automatization, the amount of work that these farmers do is impressive.
p.s. they have 20,000 maple taps too!
A Really Big Shew.
60,000+ taps. That is how many taps the Branon Family will be managing this year, with expansion on the horizon. This family run sugaring operation had characteristics of many of the farms we visited in northern Vermont. They operate with solar power, generating enough energy from their solar trackers to run their sugarhouse, workshop, house and pump houses in their Fairfield location (they have two locations, the other being in Bakersfield, VT). The scale of the operation reflects the amount of work the family must put in, and much of the family works year-round at it. Check out the CDL and Lapierre evaporators that they run side by side during the sugaring season.
Below you see the room between the sap storage and boiling room, it is filled with posts for reverse osmosis (for concentrating raw saw before it's boiled).
Because the sugaring season is short and sap must be kept cool and boiled quickly once it is collected, an operation this size must take advantage of different technologies to make the logistics handling large amounts of sap manageable. This family has done everything from pumping cool brook water inside to cool their sap, to piping their hot condensate water throughout the sugarhouse so they can clean anything on demand.
Timing is also important in sugaring, and the bigger you get, the more important timing is. Each farmer has only a limited amount of space for sap storage and has a specific rate that they can boil, filter, and bottle their maple syrup. Orchestrating the whole process can be quite delicate, and during the season it becomes almost like a dance of many different hoses, pumps, filters, tanks and people running around simultaneously. Each step has special requirements that must be met, and one often depends upon the last or next to come. To help with this orchestration, the Branons have installed a security system that allows them to view video in all different parts of their operation at both locations so that they can make sure that all pieces of the operation are running smoothly and that they can anticipate any problems that might arise.
It's a tradition for sugar houses to put a sample of each batch they make in the window. Below is the Branon Family's collection, and this is only one of two windows that were full.
Sugaring is a family tradition.
All in all the event truly was a celebration of REAL maple, as its slogan declared. Sugarmakers are friendly people and so many are willing to share their expertise and experiences to make the industry as a whole better. Amongst all of the tech sessions, research, and conversations about methods and different farms there was one commonality that linked everything together. It appears to me that by far, most sugaring is done by families. This is perhaps the result of its farming roots. Sometimes an operation is only run by two people, such as a father and his son or a sister and her brother. And sometimes you'll find a sugarhouse filled with extended family, perhaps even 3 generations, including those so young they can barely talk or those so old they can barely walk, working side by side to make the operation successful. It was lovely to leave this event thinking about this. Getting to know each farm and its operation is also getting to know a family and catching a glimpse into their life. And while advances in technology may change how we make maple syrup, it is comforting to think that there are some things that don't change as much as we think.
Want to know why we named our blog the Kettle Tender? Read our first blog entry here.