Making pure, rich, delicious maple syrup is a North Country tradition, an important cottage industry, and an increasingly important part of the region’s economy. There’s pride and care in every gallon of maple syrup made.
In our region, maple sap typically flows best from mid-March through mid-April, during periods when days are warm, but nighttime temperatures fall below freezing. That cycle of warming and cooling is essential. Should temperatures linger above or below freezing, sap flow will stop. If overall conditions are too warm or too cool, the season will be a poor sap-production season. And once it warms up to where the buds on the trees begin to swell and break dormancy, the chemical makeup of the sap changes, causing off-flavors to develop, at which time the sap is no longer satisfactory for maple syrup.
Root pressure and transpiration, the mechanism by which water is transported in stems during the growing season, does not cause sap flow in maples during the sugaring season. Instead, the sap flow mechanism comes from branches exposed to freezing and thawing temperatures.
Most tree species, including all varieties of birch, lack this mechanism and, therefore, do not produce sap in early spring. Sap flow in birch trees is entirely dependent on root pressure, which develops once the soil warms to about 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Michael Farrell, director of Cornell’s Uihlein Sugar Maple Research and Extension Field Station in Lake Placid says, “This means that birch sap is flowing just as the maple season is finishing, providing a potential complement to maple syrup production.”
Birch syrup is most widely associated with Alaska and British Columbia, Canada, where production is quite similar to maple syrup production, here. Farrell believes that since “birch trees are already abundant in or near many maple sugarbushes, many maple producers would be able to add birch production to their operations relatively simply, using existing equipment that would otherwise not be in use at the time.” He adds that, “Alaska birch sugarmakers export their products to Italy and cannot keep up with demand.” Cornell Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Professor Emeritus and former director of the Cornell maple program Brian Chabot, current director Stephen Childs, and Farrell all enthusiastically agree that birch syrup has abundant local and export upside potential.
But a number of uncertainties remain; i.e. optimal times for tapping, how much sap producers can expect to obtain from birch trees in the Northeast using modern practices, how many trees are needed to realistically turn a profit, and whether consumers will show an interest. But according to Farrell, “Birch syrup sells well in small containers as a novelty item or souvenir.”
At the Uihlein Field Station sugarhouse, eight-ounce bottles of birch syrup sell readily for $20 apiece; which equates to $320 per gallon. Among the drawbacks for producers; birch sap yields less than half the sugar content of maple sap, it caramelizes rapidly, scorches easily, and does not taste like maple syrup. In fact, Birch syrup is definitely not pancake syrup and Farrell says, “If you were to put birch syrup on your pancakes, you’d regret it.”
Farrell and his team of Cornell researchers are seeking participation from northern NY maple sugarmakers with at least 50 birch trees of tappable size on their property, who would be interested in participating in trialing birch sap and syrup production. The project is intended to explore the production potential of different species of birch in different locations across the North Country and what the impact of using vacuum tubing, gravity tubing, or buckets has on sap yield. A grant from the Northern NY Agricultural Development Program will pay for all materials needed for collecting and measuring sap volumes and sugar concentration from participants’ birch trees, so participating syrup producers should have no out of pocket expenses.
If you are interested in learning more or have questions about the project, please contact Michael Farrell at (518) 637 7000 or [email protected]
Birch syrup production utilizes an already existing, unused forest resource, while representing a relatively simple and ecologically sustainable way of increasing the profitability of North Country family farms and woodlands and the long-term economic sustainability of the region’s syrup producing industry, along with the jobs that industry provides and way of life the industry exemplifies.