Sweet science: Vermont maple syrup industry embraces hi-tech tricks
This article titled “Sweet science: Vermont maple syrup industry embraces hi-tech tricks” was written by Sarah Betancourt in Montpelier, Vermont, for theguardian.com on Thursday 13th April 2017 11.00 UTC
The late March wind tugs at the jackets of Mooretown Elementary students as they clamber after Burr Morse into a wooden sugar shack. Morse, 70, is taking a break from preparing for open house weekend, the annual Vermont maple free-for-all, where 94 farms will open their doors to the public, offering sugar-on-snow, sleigh rides, and maple treats. The sap is temporarily frozen, but sugarers are anticipating potential flow over the weekend, when the temperatures hit a high of 40 degrees.
They’ll extract it using high-tech reverse osmosis machines, refine it at a level three times as efficient as a 2004 farm, and power the whole facility using wind power, solar energy and cow manure. The industry’s gains in efficiency have even offset a problem creeping up on all agriculture: climate change, which is shortening the sugaring season.
The Vermont sugar industry predates European colonists, and in its current iteration is both folksy and hi-tech. Farmers across the state man their posts by expensive evaporators and thousands of miles of plastic piping from snowbound trees to the warmth of smoking sugar houses.
Sugaring was a tradition started by Native American tribes and carried on by Vermont settlers who couldn’t afford processed white sugar at their general stores. Two hundred years later, it continues as a booming industry.
Seventy years ago, Morse’s grandparents moved their dairy and maple production down the road to the current farm, but the old wooden structure stands as a reminder of the farming his family has done on hundreds of acres since the 1790s. When his father sold all of the family Jersey cattle in 1966, the Morses turned to sugaring entirely, increasing their tapping from 3,000 trees to 5,000 in 2014.
Morse and his son Tom, 36, have worked to modernize the farm with reverse osmosis machines, and oil-fired evaporators that expedite the process far beyond the old method of tapping a tree and leaving a bucket hanging to collect sap.
Now, 5/16-inch tubing brings sap from thousands of trees to the small sugarhouse, outlining the white snow like blue-green capillaries, and saving farmers from the task of loading hundreds of gallons of sap onto pickup trucks.
Afterward, a reverse osmosis machine reduces the sap’s water content, and evaporator starts the boiling. “We bring it from 2% sugar content when the sap comes out of the tree,” explains Morse. “We get it there in a reverse osmosis machine. Then in an evaporator to get it to 66% sugar content.” The evaporator removes water from the sap before boiling increasing the sugar level, and the liquid is filtered and bottled. Boiling sap once took over 12 hours – now, it can be done as quickly as 30 minutes for a batch.
When sugarers go green
Chris Trudeau, 24, watches sap boil in a 0,000 evaporator. On a good day, it can process 140 gallons of syrup an hour. Trudeau’s extended family, the Harrisons, own Georgia Mountain Maples, and he works there with 26 other full-time and seasonal employees. In December, he spent a month with other workers individually tapping the 120,000 trees on the 2,000-acre property, a large mountain in the middle of Milton. Trudeau said: “I’ve been here since the start of it. I used to do buckets in high school.”
Sap comes in through 500 miles of tubing to a reverse osmosis machine, into 9,500-gallon concrete holding tanks, then into the evaporator that Trudeau oversees. After being filtered, the syrup is barreled and poured into containers.
Shannon, Kevin, and Cathy Harrison opened Georgia Mountain Maples six years ago. Unlike the Morses, they sell wholesale. The Harrisons’ concrete company has 100 employees. When it’s offseason for concrete, they switch over some of the staff to the sugarhouse to ensure they won’t have to be laid off.
Sugarers use everything from tree taps to submersible pumps to maple cream-making machines in the 21st-century iteration of their business, and Georgia Mountain Maples uses the Georgia Mountain Community wind farm, which sends power from its 10-megawatt wind turbines back into the grid. There’s a solar component, too: “Our solar project creates enough to offset our bills,” Kevin Harrison explained.
The farm itself runs on gas, purchasing “cow power” through Green Mountain Power Company, which converts methane from cow manure into fuel. Fourteen farms and 13,500 cows are part of the program, creating 73,000 tons of methane – the equivalent of burning more than 8.2m gallons of gas. Cow power powers 3,200 Vermont homes.
Does all of this interest in cheap energy speak to concern about the effects of climate change? It depends on who you ask; clean power is also cheap and efficient power. Harrison said, “We made a lot of syrup in January and February, but then again, it’s only a week or two, then a stop. I don’t know what normal is anymore. It’s definitely about temperature.” In 2017, for the first time many Vermont sugarers were tapping in January due to mild temperatures. With every shift in temperature comes the high price of shutting down operations only to start up again every few weeks.
Despite the earlier sugaring times, the maple season is three days shorter than it has been in the past, according to the Proctor Maple Research Center at the University of Vermont. Fifteen years ago, this would have meant a 10% smaller crop, or a major economic hit, but technology has increased yields so significantly that a briefer season is not yet a problem.
Although most sugarers admit that human-caused climate change exists, they don’t seem to think it is influencing them. Most farm owners mentioned the change in the season starting as their indicator that “something is off”. But if anything is amiss, it appears to be benefiting them.
Timothy Perkins, director of the Proctor Maple Research Center, said: “It’s hard to say if anything is happening in one year. What we’ve seen in the past 50 is the season changing, and happening earlier in the calendar year.” He does believe that improved sap collection techniques and sanitation have improved sugaring and increased yields because they take the trees into consideration.
He explained, “trees are like all living organisms; they don’t want infections. When you drill, you create a wound. For people, we develop a scab, then the wound is healed. Trees internally wall off that wound to spread infection from spreading into tree from microbes in the tap hole.”
The typical maple tree tap generates .2 gallons of syrup over time, an average Proctor Center has tripled in a 13-year average to .6 gallons.
Meanwhile, local news stations are buzzing about new technology that will decrease the time, cost, and amount of energy it takes to make a gallon of syrup. Usually, it takes four gallons of oil to produce a single gallon of syrup. With new a new kind of high “brix” (sugar concentration) reverse osmosis machine and evaporator, it only takes 0.18 gallons.
Of course, new technology is always expensive. Farmers are worried the expedited process might change the flavor of syrup. The Proctor Center has been testing samples from Canadian maple farms, and also tried blind taste tests with consumers. “We have taste panels, some from the high brix machine, and some from normal production. People couldn’t tell the difference. We are perfectly convinced it makes good syrup.”
- This article was amended on 17 April 2017 to clarify that wind turbines power Georgia Mountain Maples, not Morse Farm.
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