As the world is in the midst of a pandemic from the COVID-19 virus, maple trees that dot the landscape across the northeast continued to flow this spring like nothing had changed in the world. Despite the interruption to daily life for most Americans, sugar-makers continued to collect sap from their maple trees and boil it down into nature’s sweet treat – maple syrup. For sugar-makers, long days and nights of boiling and collecting sap are required. As a result, little time is left for socialization so life has not changed as drastically for sugar-makers as it has for others. Coronavirus or not, this was the time we had to collect the sap to make syrup. Maple is an agriculture practice and part of our food system so sugar-makers are deemed essential. Many who enjoy maple syrup would agree that maple syrup production is an essential job.
As we enter spring in the Adirondacks, the iconic maple season is coming to a close. Freezing and thawing temperatures are required for the maple season, which leaves a short window of time for sap collection. Freezing temperatures at night actually creates negative pressure within a maple tree that allows water from the soil to be pulled in through the tree roots, travel up the trunk, and then up into the branches where it eventually freezes. As the sap travels through the tree, it picks up stored sugars within the tree. The following day, as the temperature warms to above freezing, the sap thaws and creates positive pressure within the tree and pushes the sap back down. When maple producers have a tap into the side of the tree, the sap then moves from the tree — which is under pressure — to our collection bucket or tubing, which is under less pressure. Maple producers often use a vacuum pump on the tubing to create even lower pressure and allow more sap to flow from the tree and therefore increase production.
Many parts of the northeastern U.S. have seen the maple season come to a close but at Cornell University’s Uihlein Maple Research Forest in Lake Placid, the freezing and thawing temperatures are holding and the sap continues to flow for us. This year’s maple season started early for most producers and ended earlier than normal. Maple producers in higher elevation and colder climates, such as Lake Placid, saw an early season but a season that continues on. When looking at production volume, most of the more southern regions, such as southern Vermont and southern New York saw an average maple season this year. Maple producers in far northern and higher elevation regions are more than likely seeing an above-average crop this season.
A record year
At Cornell’s Uihlein Forest we are experiencing a record year with currently close to 2,900 gallons of syrup from over 7,000 maple trees. That is over 0.4 gallons of syrup per tap. Some producers can see over half a gallon of syrup a tap. Without a vacuum system most producers harvest around a quarter of a gallon of syrup per tap. The average syrup per tap in New York is around 0.3 gallons per tap.
Despite an average or above average maple syrup production season, most maple producers experienced lower than normal sap sugar. Typically the concentration of sugar in sap is around 2%. At this ratio it takes about 43 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup. This season maple producers were seeing sap sweetness levels hovering down around 1.5-1.8% or lower which has a ratio of sap to syrup of around 58:1. At Cornell’s Uihlein Maple Research Forest our sap sweetness was above average – around 2.3%. Lower sap sugar in some regions was more than likely a result of a lot of rain early on last summer that limited photosynthesis – the process required to produce the sugars in the tree. Sugar maples this past also fall had a larger crop of seeds as well. Instead of storing all the sugar they produced the trees used a portion of their sugar reserves to produce the seeds.
Support your local maple producers
The biggest change to maple producers this season was not having the ability to allow visitors into their sugarhouses. Additionally, state wide maple weekend events were cancelled along with many of the pancake breakfasts. For many maple producers this is the time of year where they sell the majority of their crop. This will certainly put a financial strain on maple producers who already work hard for little financial reward. I would encourage everyone to continue or start supporting your local maple producer, whether it is now or when everything calms down from COVID-19. Most maple producers have roadside self-service stands or would be happy to leave a bottle or two of maple syrup out for you if you call. For a list and map of maple producers in your area, visit the New York Maple Producers Association website at www.nysmaple.com.
If you have any questions about maple, feel free to contact me at the Cornell University Uihlein Maple Research Forest in Lake Placid. (518) 523-9337 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Photos courtesy of Adam Wild, Director of the Cornell University Uihlein Maple Research Forest