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Started From The Bottom: The Discovery That Could Upend The Maple Syrup Industry
January 22, 2014
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(Photos: Dave Pape/FlickrSally McCay/University of Vermont)

If you ever went maple sugaring as a kid, you probably remember how maple syrup is made: mature trees are tapped for their sap, which is boiled down and reduced until it produces the sweet, sticky liquid symbol of Canadian identity.

A new discovery about how maple trees produce sap may change all that, and transform the entire maple industry, according to a fascinating feature on Modern Farmer.

At a maple syrup conference in New Brunswick last October, plant biologists from the University of Vermont's Maple Research Center unveiled an entirely new production method: instead of letting the sap drip down to the tap from the leaves and branches of mature trees, they lop off the top of saplings, affix a cap and vacuum tube and suck the sap out from the roots.

As Laura Sorkin explains on Modern Farmer, the implications for syrup production could be revolutionary, with sugarmakers planting rows upon rows of saplings in large open fields. "In other words," she writes, "it is possible that maple syrup could now be produced as a row crop like every other commercial crop in North America."

The numbers involved are striking: an average hectare of natural forest can offer about 450 litres of syrup, but a hectare of densely planted saplings could potentially yield 10 times that much.

From a pure production point of view, the system is appealing: in areas where viable maple forests are scarce, it could open up syrup production to a wider group of farmers. Saplings also thaw more quickly than full trees, which means they can start releasing sap much sooner after the temperature rises above freezing. It turns out they're also less appealing to the Asian longhorn beetle, which has been devastating maple forests in Canada and the U.S.

Of course, not everyone's thrilled about the method.

In the Modern Farmer article, Sorkin, who runs a maple operation in Vermont, writes, "personally the thought of taking maple out of the forest and turning into another row crop saddens me."

But Tim Perkins, one of the researchers behind the method, argued last year that plantation syrup is just part of the "natural progression" of the industry. “Tubing was going to destroy the industry; reverse osmosis was going to destroy the industry; vacuum was going to destroy the maple industry," he said. "We’ve heard this again and again.” And he likens the process to what happened with Christmas trees.

“Today, no one thinks at all about going to cut a Christmas tree in a tree plantation,” he said. “But fifty or seventy years ago you didn’t do that. You went to the woods. Nobody planted Christmas trees. And then somebody said, ‘well, it would be a lot easier if we planted Christmas trees’ — and now the Christmas tree farm is our heritage."

Via Modern Farmer

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