Dispatch from the Sugarwoods Part 2

Dispatch from the Sugarwoods Part 2

So the crazy weather continues, though of late it’s been too cold instead of too hot. By putting the temperatures from the last two weeks side by side with the temperatures from the previous two weeks, we can clearly see the rhinestones and feathers on the masks of these masquerading months: February dolled up as April; March pretending to be February for long stretches.


Date High Low Date High Low
2/16 31 19 3/2 53 23
2/17 32 11 3/3 31 13
2/18 54 12 3/4 17 5
2/19 52 41 3/5 25 1
2/20 44 21 3/6 43 5
2/21 45 14 3/7 54 36
2/22 58 34 3/8 57 39
2/23 69 35 3/9 45 30
2/24 72 40 3/10 33 15
2/25 69 35 3/11 16 3
2/26 36 22 3/12 21 1
2/27 51 21 3/13 26 6
2/28 51 30 3/14 26 16
3/1 68 53 3/15 19 10

And yet, we got one solid run that I highlighted. The lows on 3/4, 3/5, and 3/6 were so cold that the sap didn’t really start to run on 3/7 until after dark – the trees were frozen. But once it started it flowed moderately through 3/9.

Production-wise, we’re now up to 12.3 gallons of sap per tap, which puts us over the 10 gallons per tap metric that’s considered a “crop” for folks without vacuum, and about 75 percent of the way to the 16 gallons/tap average we feel we should realistically generate in a season. If we were state-of-the-art, we’d be striving for 20 gallons per tap. I point out these distinctions because technology is stratifying the industry so much that it can be very hard to gauge what a good year is anymore. Back in the old days, when our farmer forefathers and mothers all tapped on Town Meeting Day and everyone, big and small, was collecting sap in buckets, we were all kind of in the same boat. But today, the concept of what constitutes a good crop is intensely subjective and really needs to be considered on a producer by producer basis. Keep this in mind later in the spring when you try to square the news story you read one day, in which a poor maple producer had a terrible year and is blaming it on the crazy weather and climate change, with the subsequent news story you read about how, region-wide, sugarmakers made oodles of syrup and everyone’s worried about overproduction bringing down prices. Because there are so many variables, both stories can be simultaneously true.

I really enjoy reading the comments other people leave on this blog, and since there’s not a lot to report on the sugaring front thanks to the weather, I figured I’d comment on some of the comments left on my last dispatch in a way that will hopefully illuminate things to those of you who aren’t sugarmakers but are interested in learning more about the pursuit.

Tom from Monkton wrote that he was only making dark syrup, and wondered if an RO would reduce the problem. RO is “reverse osmosis” – an osmotic filter that extracts pure water from the sap before it’s boiled, thus concentrating the sugar and reducing the boiling time. As someone who’s boiled with and without an RO, I’d venture that the answer is “maybe.” If you’re really backed up with sap and it’s taking you days to process it, then the RO will certainly help your syrup color simply by speeding the process along. But it’s not a magic bullet, and if you don’t match your evaporator to your RO, meaning have a rig that’s capable of boiling the concentrate efficiently, an RO could actually make the color problem worse, as concentrated sap spoils much quicker than raw sap. All of which is to say that if your rig can process a good run of sap in a reasonable amount of time – say eight hours – then you’d be better off examining other aspects of your operation. I think a lot of microbial contamination comes from the tubing infrastructure, so I’d start there. Get rid of the black water line mainline if you have any. Replace all your tubing when it’s 10 years old. Get a vacuum pump, or try 3/16ths tubing, as a means of making the sap flow quickly through your lines. Also examine your sap storage critically. Are there ways you can make the gathering tank cooler? For instance, choosing a north exposure, using a white cover instead of a black cover, creating better air flow, putting it outside the sugarhouse instead of inside where it can heat up. Some tweaks along these lines could help. Finally, the solution might just be to cut yourself some slack. We sell sap to a state-of-the-art producer who uses all the best practices and the highest they’ve gotten grade-wise this year is amber rich. On a year like this, it’s possible that it’s just not possible to make really light syrup.

Malcolm MacKenzie wrote: My move to 3/16 tubing has been helpful in moving sap more quickly through the lines. For those who don’t know, standard maple tubing is 5/16, so this new stuff is significantly smaller. If you set each lateral up with lots of taps, lots of pitch, and space for adequate head, it supposedly creates natural vacuum in your lines that rivals what a vacuum pump creates. The research behind this that I’m aware of is being conducted by Tim Wilmot up at Proctor Maple Research Center – if you’re interested you can read more about it here. I’ve heard Malcolm’s good reviews echoed by a lot of other producers. My cousin Eric, a student at Paul Smith’s College, worked this winter setting up a big new 3/16ths bush. I asked him for his impressions and he told me:

From my experience with 3/16, it is way easier to set up. It can be stretched way tighter to prevent sagging. Another benefit for us “tough” guys, if the tubing had spent the night inside, we could muscle the fittings on without any tools.  Honestly, I haven’t been shown any reason not to switch. More vacuum, more trees, and less plastic. People should consider doing the switch in large sections, trying to limit the mix of 3/16 and 5/16 fittings.  

We’ve yet to try it in our woods, but next time we add taps, that will change.

Dave Anderson wrote: Feels like we missed the entire first half of the season, and while preparing to boil now, we wonder if we should have been ready to tap in January (we were not); a sentiment I’m sure every sugarmaker can relate to. Even though this year we did tap in January, we didn’t have our vacuum levels where we wanted them for the first run and a half, a glitch that I fear cost us a lot of sap. Of course, such is the game. We tapped some buckets around the sugarhouse on March 9, and noticed that the run on the fresh trees was significantly faster than the run on the trees that had been tapped in January. If we get two weeks of good sap weather once it warms up, those who waited could still end up having a good year, even a better year than us early birds who have holes that are slowing down or have stopped. Of course the season could just up and end, too.

Marvin Bicknell wrote: Sugar content seemed a little low. Same with us and everyone else I’ve talked to down here in southern Vermont. Our sugar content has hovered between 1.8 and 2.0 the whole year; on better sugar years it peaks at around 2.5. Some guys down here have struggled to get above 1.6.

Dispatch from the Sugarwoods 2017 Part 1

Dispatch from the Sugarwoods Part 3

  1. Bill Risso → in Strafford, VT
    Mar 17, 2017

    Dave, thanks for your wonderful writing. I no longer can actively sugar, but I so enjoy hearing how the process is changing and improving.

    From horses and buckets to 3/16
    Plastic. Wow!

  2. Dave Anderson → in Sutton, NH
    Mar 20, 2017

    Thanks for including my “not ready” lament. Reading this latest dispatch gets me musing about the resiliency and adaptability of sugarmakers and the rate of innovations. See previous comment from an old-timer. We have to wonder if we can continue to adapt and to change practices as fast as the weather and climate seem to be changing. Seems like the race is clearly now on!

  3. Cam Kelly → in Plainfield, Vermont
    Apr 01, 2017

    I have only 35 buckets in my “operation,”(enough to sweeten my coffee through the year!), but I’ve been sugaring for 16 years and have witnessed the wild weather swings each winter/spring.  This year I’ve only made 3 gallons so far, and I doubt I’ll get up to the 8 I usually make. I do have a question:  does removing and tossing aside the frozen sap significantly reduce the amount of syrup made?

  4. Tom McCrumm → in Western MA
    Apr 17, 2017

    I’ve been sugaring for almost 50 years in 3 different states. Technology has changed things a lot over those years. The news media will often say that earlier tapping/boiling dates means spring is coming sooner and is caused by global warming.  That is certainly part of the equation, but the news media doesn’t mention that a lot of the earlier boiling dates are a result of technology changes.  Good sanitation, high vacuum, replacing spouts yearly and drops every 3 years has really changed things for the better by extending the season on both the front and the back end.  Sap sugar content was low this year, but I still was able to get over 28 gallons of sap per tap, which yielded .5 gallons syrup per tap.  Its my best production in 30 years here, yet most of the crop was A medium or A dark (to use the old grades).  Another producer nearby made 90% A Light and no dark, with no RO to speed things up.  Go figure.  I sum up sugaring by saying this:  The more we know about maple sugaring, the more we realize how much we don’t know.  Its Mother Nature keeping us amazed and amused. . . . and sometimes confused.

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