As I fill out my 2020 paperwork for Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA), I've been thinking about how often I get asked what makes organic maple syrup, well organic.
It’s a reasonable question to ask. Maple syrup is an age old commodity; a single-ingredient product that is minimally processed.
While my answer to this question is, I admit, often a little more involved than most people bargain for, I think it’s worth laying out in the following way.
To be organic there are four important things to consider. Actually, there are three important things. The fourth thing is just a necessity for the certification process. They are the following:
- What is in the product
- How you treat the land
- What you use around the product
- Providing proof of your process
Let's look at each of these for maple syrup.
1. What is in the product.
For maple syrup this is easy. It is condensed maple sap.
Maple tree sap is boiled down to make maple syrup. This is what most people think of as the process of making maple syrup, but for a commercial operation like ours the process is a bit more complex. Besides using two evaporators, our operation also uses vacuum pumps, releasers, several reverse osmosis machines, preheaters, finish pans, filter presses and canners.
Running a reverse osmosis (RO) is an example of how most commercial operations have a more complex system for processing sap than the public often realizes. Here Nate stands next to the three posts in one of our RO systems.
In most commercial operations, there are two things that come into contact with our sap during and after the boiling process that have to be considered in terms of organic certification. These two things are a defoamer and a filter aid.
Let's look at the defoamer first. What is it?
Most every commercial maple syrup producer must add something during the boiling process so that their pans of hot maple sap do not boil over. That something is some kind of fat.
Why is it needed? Let's get out our chemistry goggles. When a liquid is at its boiling point, it boils. Whew, okay I guess we didn't really need the goggles. The not as obvious part of that statement means that the substance is changing from a liquid to gas throughout the entire column of the liquid (as opposed to evaporation, which just happens at the surface of a liquid, when that liquid is below its boiling point).
You can see the small bubbles in our front pan of boiling maple syrup. Ideally the level is low in the pan with as little foam as possible.
Because the bubbles created during the boiling process are roughly 95% gas and 5% liquid, they are less dense than the hot sap they are surrounded by and they rise to the top of that column of liquid. Now sometimes the energy of the molecules of gas are high enough that they break the bubble and the gas escapes. Sometimes this doesn't happen however, because they are very sticky. Okay we all know that syrup is sticky, but the molecules of condensing sap themselves are also sticky, electromagnetically speaking. This creates a high surface tension between the bubbles, so they want to stick together and create foam.
To break up some of the surface tension and reduce foam during a boil, some kind of fat is needed as a surfactant to break up the bubbles. We all know that oil and water do not mix well together, and in essence this is what reduces the foam.
Reducing foam is very important to the sugarmaker. It reduces the chance of sap boil over and burning pans. (Didn't you ever hear the joke about sugarmakers? There are two kinds. Those that have burned pans, and liars). Reducing foam also creates a more efficient boil by allowing for more rapid water loss. Excess foam can also create off-flavored syrup which reduces the syrup value.
There are all kinds of options for a defoamer out there. Back in the day when many sugarmakers were also dairy farmers, many farmers might have used cream or butter. Now there are more efficient synthetic defoamers. Currently these synthetic defoaming agents are not an approved organic processing aid. What do organic processors use? Well they use something that is already certified as organic. Organic canola and safflower oils are often the choice of organic maple producers. Organic cream or butter could be used, however we choose not to use them because because dairy is a common allergy and also to allow for vegans to eat our syrup.
So herein lies one of the simplest ways to differentiate an organic maple syrup from a conventional one, an organic maple syrup cannot be made with a synthetic defoamer.
An argument conventional maple syrup makers use against being certified organic is that they say that the organic oils are less efficient at doing their job. The maple industry is responding to this concern and the Proctor Maple Research Center at The University of Vermont is conducting research into potentially more efficient organic defoamers as well as guidelines for defoamer use (in addition to assessing tapping guidelines for sustainability).
On to the second processing aid that comes into contact with maple syrup, the filter aid.
If you've made maple syrup, you know that one of the most frustrating and difficult things about the process is filtering your syrup after it officially becomes syrup. That is because syrup is naturally thick and ooey gooey, and it makes for a sticky, slow process to try to push it through some paper or fabric. Heating it up helps. While there are a number of ways to filter, we at Sap Hound use a filter press.
The press is comprised of a series of stainless steel metal plates that line up together to form hollow compartments that the syrup gets pumped through. We line each plate with a piece of filter paper and then pump our syrup through the press. While pumping the syrup through we add filter aid which is a food grade (think:purified) diatomaceous earth (DE). For those who don't know DE is the fossilized remains of little tiny critters called diatoms that are crushed up into a fine powder. Then we recirculate the syrup-DE mixture through the press, and the DE gets caught between each filter paper and fills ups the little hollow spaces between each plate. The DE suspended between each plate creates the material that actually filters the syrup.
Any particles in the syrup, including perhaps* the oil we use as the defoamer, but most notably also the niter (also called sugar sand, it is the condensed minerals from the tree sap) gets removed in this way our syrup becomes clear.
All of the DE remains in the filter press once filtering is complete. Because it comes into contact with the finished maple syrup, it is essential that food grade DE is used. As it pertains to the subject of organic vs conventional maple syrup, all producers (whom use filter presses) use this, so it makes no difference between the two, except in one minor way. Organic producers are forced to provide documentation and receipts for all of their filter aid to show that it is what we say it is (food grade).
It is pertinent here to mention that there are several "tiers" if you will of organic.
- Specific organic ingredients - this means a product has some organic ingredients (they will be listed as organic in the ingredient list) but less than 70% of the ingredients are organic.
- Made with organic ingredients - here at least 70% of the ingredients are organic, and they will again be listed in the ingredient list.
- Organic - 95% or more of the product must be made with organic ingredients, and the up to 5% conventional ingredients must be on an approved list of substances provided by the USDA (it gets a little complicated here, there are actually two lists but the important thing for us to know is that DE is one of these approved substances).
- 100% Organic - all ingredients and processing aids must be certified organic.
Mentioning the filter aid is important because it is the contact between our maple syrup with the food grade DE that makes it so we cannot label our maple syrup as 100% Organic, even though none of it ends up in the final product.
2. How you treat the land
The USDA is responsible for creating the national standards for organically-produced agricultural products. Let's look at what they say about being organic.
"The USDA organic regulations describe organic agriculture as the application of a set of cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that support the cycling of on-farm resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. These include maintaining or enhancing soil and water quality, conserving wetlands, woodlands, and wildlife; and avoiding use of synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering." (see source here).
Thus, there is more to making organic maple syrup than just using an organic defoamer. We follow a set of guidelines set forth by a certifying agency that help keep the ecological integrity of the land.
In our case, we are certified by Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA). They provide us with tapping guidelines along with some general principles to farm by. Check out the list below for some examples of the guidelines for maple producers in 2020.
- Only tapping trees that are at least 10" in diameter.
- Placing successive taps at standard distances from previous tap holes.
- The number of taps per tree in in compliance with diameter of tree.
- Keeping trees in good health, by evidence of previous year's holes healing.
- Manage for healthy forest regeneration.
- Manage our forest for a diversity of plant species, as well as structural diversity, providing habitat for a diversity of wildlife.
- The trees that we tap cannot have paint on bark or any metal in them (think nails, screws, barbed wire).
Organic standards also require that you remove spouts as soon as possible. Here you can see myself and Manny preparing for a day of spout removal.
The specific guidelines are largely related to tree health. Below is an example of a sugar maple tree that I removed the tap from in our forest. It has damage from a sugar maple borer insect. When I looked up at the crown of the tree, it was small indicating the tree was not in great health. The way this insect damages a tree is that it lays its eggs in sugar maple bark and when the larva hatches it crawls under the bark and overwinters. Then the next growing season, it tunnels in a spiraling fashion up the sap wood, the conductive tissue of the tree. This is a sugarmaker's most precious resource. The damage from the boring insect is enough to significantly reduce the amount of sap flow for the tree.
It is unlikely that this tree will die from this damage, but if it does, we will leave it for the animals. It will make a great foraging and habitat tree.
In the picture below you can see a tension puller on the line and what's called the drop, the small piece of tubing that goes from the main tubing system to the spout and tree (the loop of tubing that is hanging), being removed.
If it recovers enough we will be able to add it back into our production line up, but for now we let it try to heal itself.
3. What you use around the product.
In the case of maple sugaring this includes how you store your sap and syrup, how you clean your facility and it also extends to what could potentially contaminate your sap in the forest. Here are some examples from our practice manual are below:
- Eliminate any potential contaminants to collection vessels and pump stations.
- Not treating our forest with prohibited pesticides, herbicides, fungicides or other chemicals.
- Clean the sugar house and equipment with appropriate cleansers. At Sap Hound we use vinegar and baking soda to clean out our pans. We use the appropriate RO soap to clean our our reverse osmosis filters).
- Monitor vacuum pressure with gauges (see pic below).
- Storage of syrup and sap in stainless steel containers.
We have gauges naturally on our vacuum pumps, but also at junctions with mainlines.
4. Proof of your process.
As an organic producer, we are subject to annual inspection by a third party inspector, and they go through this list with us, and usually more. This is a bit of insight into what they are looking for.
- Keep records of syrup produced and sold. This includes creating what’s called an annual mass balance where the ounces of maple syrup produced is equal to the ounces sold (and what's in inventory).
- Keep tapping, boiling, maintenance, and cleaning logs. This also includes a written procedures for how we do these things.
- Keep unique batch codes for each batch of maple syrup produced. We put stickers on the bottom of every bottle bottle we sell and during no our audit trace a randomly chosen bottle back to its batch.
I wish we lived in a world where a natural food was sold as it is and if you wanted to add artificial ingredients, fillers, and chemicals you had to pay extra to certify that it is safe for consumption and label it with special logos.
Because we don't live in that world, the burden is on growers and producers like us to prove to organizations like MOFGA and our customers that we adhere to specific standards, mainly not putting certain things in or around our food. Thus, MOFGA requires documentation of our practices. A third party audit is often another difference between an organic and a conventional maple sugar farmer.
Buy direct from the farm and ask questions
Not all organic producers may be labeled as organic. Maybe a producer follows all of these organic practices but doesn't pay for the certification and audit, and is not officially labeled as such. Or you may buy syrup from a neighbor who cooks maple in the backyard using a small amount of cream as a defoamer, or even a cut of bacon! (Not the worst offense unless you happen to be vegan, vegetarian, or kosher, then it becomes an important detail). The only way you would know either of these things would be to ask the person who made the maple syrup how they made it.
Before we were a commercial operation we lugged buckets of sap to the fire where we boiled our maple syrup down. We made syrup with many organic practices, although knowing much more now than we did then, we did some things conventionally. Things as simple as storing sap in a plastic drum is not acceptable for an organic operation. It is true for many (but not all) hobby sugarmakers, that they may use many organic practices. However, the only way to know for sure is to ask.
Certifications are one way to communicate things about the food we buy. For us, we have found organic certification to be an important way to let our customers know about the standards we use to produce our maple syrup.
In my opinion, the best thing you can do when buying maple syrup is to shop directly from a farmer and ask them about their maple syrup. I've never met a sugar maker who doesn't like to chat. So don't be shy. We work hard and like to talk about what we do.
Nate, Corrie, and Manny (eating his crunchies) after a long open house event.
In the end, if you can get your information right from the source about how we make our maple syrup, you'll have a better understanding of your food, as well as the thought and dedication we put into our work. Hopefully this allows you to make more informed decisions about your food choices and have a stronger connection to your food.