As a maple syrup producer, I’m often asked in December or January how I think the coming maple season will be. But, in the few years that I’ve been making maple syrup now, I’ve learned the wisdom of the seasoned producer’s standard answer: “Ask me at the end of the season.”
Humans like to try their hands at prognostication, and the maple scientists have done their best in this regard. They’ve looked at every variable they can think of – from seed crops to precipitation to heat – in the preceding summer that might be a reliable predictor of the coming maple sap crop. In the end, though, what they’ve found is that nothing influences a sap flow nearly as much as the simple fluctuation of temperatures during the freeze/thaw cycles of the spring that are necessary to pump the sap up from the tree’s roots in the day and back down again at night. It all comes down to a matter of degrees for a few weeks in the spring, and meteorologists’ best vision in that arena extends scant days into the future.
Well, it’s the end of the season now, so I can say with certainty that it was a great one. One for the record books, actually; Quebec – which produces about three quarters of the world’s supply of maple syrup – had an average production of 1.3 litres of syrup per tap this year, the best ever. This is a welcome relief after last year’s lackluster results.
We produced 50% more syrup this year than last – a little over one litre per tap. The average for our region – which is typically less than the syrup breadbasket of the Eastern Townships, where people can make two litres per tap in a good year – was 1.1 litres per tap this year. The fact that we’re nearly at the average for producers who all use vacuum pumps, while we don’t, is a source of pride for us and a sign that our 3/16 tubing is working.
What is this magical 3/16 tubing? Most syrup producers use a slightly larger tubing, which is 5/16 of an inch in diameter. Vacuum pumps create vacuum in these lines and increase sap yield. You can get some natural vacuum in these lines if your lines are heading downhill, but it’s limited to days with very good sap flow. A few years ago, a researcher at the University of Vermont surmised that a thinner tube would fill up with sap quicker, and should therefore create more vacuum, working like a siphon as the sap travels downhill. He tested his hypothesis and found it to work in practice, and for the past few years more and more new installations have been using his 3/16 inch diameter tubing. Since our sugar bush is on a hill, we decided to install about 2000 taps on 3/16 tubing last year, and have so far gotten good results, with yields very close to what we would expect with a pump. But the tubing is much simpler and cheaper to install, and you don’t need a pump, with its attendant noise, energy use, cost, and maintenance to deal with.
While we liked this graceful low-tech solution to obtaining vacuum, we did go a bit higher tech with the addition of a reverse osmosis unit this year. After burning 54 face cords of wood last year, dumping sap that we couldn’t boil fast enough, never being able to empty our sap tanks and clean them, and getting totally burned out boiling for 16 hours a day, we decided we had to make this investment. The RO takes the sap and pushes it under high pressure through a very fine membrane, which separates out about three-quarters of the water before you continue with the traditional method of concentration: boiling. If the sap is at 2% sugar, the RO will take it to 8%. If it’s at 3%, we’ll take it no higher than 9%. Then a few hours boiling in the wood-fired evaporator will take it up to 67%: syrup!
The RO was a game-changer for us this year. We never would have been able to keep up with all the sap we were getting this year without it. We didn’t waste any sap, we were able to clean our tanks every day, we burned half as much wood as last year (while making 50% more syrup), and – for the first time ever – we didn’t feel burned out after syrup season was over. The $14,000 investment, plus maybe $50 in electricity usage, was well worth it. We had one day where we boiled for 11 hours (and produced a record-for-us 347 litres of syrup), but most days we only boiled for about four hours. With about an equal amount of time spent cleaning, putting bottles away, etc., this made for much more reasonable days than last year.
The amount of syrup we produced per hour boiled more than tripled, from 9 litres to 32. Our litres of syrup per cord of wood nearly tripled, from 31 to 88 (although we used more softwood this year, so we used more cords as a result). So in other words, the RO increased our efficiency, both in terms of time and energy use, by about a factor of three.
One of the things that made this season great was its length. The sap started flowing for us March 7 (had we been tapped in January, we may have gotten some sap then, during a lengthy thaw, when in fact some producers in New England produced significant amounts of syrup). We let the first sap clean out the lines for a few of days, then collected, put it through the RO, and did our first boil March 12.
After a slow start, things really got rolling towards the end of March. On March 24 we produced 165 litres of syrup. Our biggest day last year was 149 litres, so we were pretty happy with that result. But then four days later we churned out 274 litres during seven hours of boiling. We were over the moon.
When that epic 347 litre day hit two days later, we couldn’t believe it. As if that wasn’t enough, our son’s preschool group and their parents all visited the sugar shack for an hour or so that day, and the CBC’s Hallie Cotnam dropped by to interview us on how the season was going and on the maple sap we were selling. You can listen to the radio piece here: or read the accompanying article here: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/local-syrup-producers-sweet-success-1.3514627.
We had tried bottling maple sap and selling it frozen last year and gotten positive results, so we did more of it this year, bottling 575 litres in the early season when the sap is sweetest and freshest. It’s a refreshing drink, and full of minerals, enzymes, anti-oxidants, and more. We encouraged people to buy 12 litres at a time and drink a bit each day as a spring tonic, and got a good response from our customers. We’ll keep some to sell during hot summer days at the Wakefield Market, and in our farm stand.
In early April, as you may remember, we had a return to winter weather. The sap obviously couldn’t run at this time, but it was a welcome break for us. After a week or so, spring returned, and things got going for us again. Then things got too warm. While the rest of the region celebrated 20 degree plus weather in mid-April, we were cursing it, as the warmth caused bacteria in the sap to multiply and the nights refused to freeze, hastening the end of our syrup-making abilities. The temperature cooled back to more seasonable levels in late April, but the damage had been done: seventeen boils after our first, we wrapped up our season on the 20th of April.
But we certainly can’t complain; by any measure, it was a fantastic season. Thanks again to the abundance of nature. It’s always bittersweet when it’s time to stop, but the grass beginning to poke up through last year’s dead remains, and the buds beginning to swell on the trees and shrubs, is a sign that it’s time for us to move on to the next stages of our working year: planting plants, inoculating mushroom logs, getting a new batch of chickens, and harvesting the first wild greens of the year.