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Borers, Feeders, and Galls Oh My!

Ohio Maple Days 2022 did not disappoint.  The food was fantastic, the vendor room crowded, and the presenters shared a wealth of knowledge of expertise across a wide range of subjects. Dr. Curtis Young, Entomologist, Extension Educator, and Associate Professor, expanded our knowledge regarding maple pests.  Many that most of us were already aware of, spotted lanternfly or Asian long-horned beetle for instance, and lots of lesser known pests.  Before we get into a few highlights, be sure to mark your calendars for next year’s conference December 8th and 9th!

Any attempt to summarize Dr. Young’s talk would fail due to the sheer amount of information that he is able to share in such a short amount of time.  And no notes!  Truly a wealth of knowledge.  Rather than attempt a synopsis, this is a great opportunity to share some general resources and up-to-date information for some of the more alarming maple pests we face here in Ohio.

University of Kentucky Extension has a great webpage that quickly catalogs a wide range of known pests across 4 general categories – leaf feeders, sap feeders, borers, and galls.  While most maple pests are just that – pests, similar to how most of us view the average mosquito, a few present a real and present danger.  That said, if your maple trees are stressed already, a relatively harmless pest can be the proverbial straw that breaks a camel’s back.  Moral of that last sentence, practice healthy silviculture and sugarbush management to ensure your trees are healthy and vigorous.

Asian long-horned beetle are always mentioned in these presentations.  Thankfully, in Ohio at least, control and eradication of Asian long-horned beetle is a success story that we seldom get to herald in the fight against invasive species.  While we keep our eyes out for future infestations, spotted lanternfly has rapidly expanded its range and our state records now show several counties with positive detections.

An excellent website to stay abreast of issues facing plant, shrub, and tree health is Buckeye Yard & Garden onLine where Dr. Curtis Young and many other experts from Ohio State University Extension provide “timely information about Ohio growing conditions, pest, disease, and cultural problems.”

More Upcoming Maple Events

We’re tapped and the production system is flushed and tight with great vacuum.  Many thanks to our students and technicians for getting the 2023 sap season underway!

Join the OSU Extension team on March 1st for the annual Woodland, Water, and Wildlife Conference.  Kathy Smith and Gabe Karns will be presenting a seminar early in the agenda titled “Woodland Owners, Maple Syrup, and the New Maple Toolbox.”  Book your whole day with us though as many other interesting topics will be covered including buckeye tree conservation, aquatic plants and wetlands, Ohio snakes, spotted lanternfly updates, urban coyotes, and more.

If you are a consulting forester, work with a natural resource agency, or are otherwise employed within the environmental and natural resource career field, please join us on March 15th for an in-service workshop customized for you!  Learn how to assess a woodlands potential, what equipment will be needed, what options are available to a landowner interested in maple sugaring, and what else is needed to establish an operation as an income opportunity.

Maple Sap-Only Enterprises – Participants NEEDED

Chris Lindgren and Dana Ruppert from University of Vermont are recruiting active or prospective maple sap-only producers to participate in a research project.

UVM Extension Maple Business is developing financial tools and technical guidance to help folks make decisions about maple sap business ventures.  To jump start this effort, they are currently conducting a Producer Survey to gather in-depth information on sap business economic activity across the maple region.  It is hoped that the information gained from the study will help maple sap producers understand and learn more about production practices, costs and markets to enhance business opportunities.  Production, marketing, business practices and peoples’ interest in the maple sap project and resources are at the heart of this survey.  Their goal is to reach as many regional sugarmakers and sap producers as we can over the next couple months.  The results of this survey will be published by UVM Extension, shared in industry publications and discussed at maple conferences beginning in 2023.

To take the survey – and remember this is for sap-only enterprises – please scan the QR code or visit Sap Survey at the Maple Manager website now.

This is a great opportunity to help the maple research community continue to build support and tools for all varieties and styles of maple operations.

Getting Ready for Season

These are exciting and anticipatory times in the sugarbush as last-minute items are checked off the list.  As that list gets shorter by the day, we are turning our attention increasingly to the weather forecast and the all-important decision of “When to tap?”

Smart sensors are installed and grabbing what precious little sunlight has shone this January.  Charge batteries, CHARGE!

Lateral lines are all patched and tight with new spouts on the end of each drop.  These little side pulls, constructed from old, chewed laterals, have been a big help to us in tightening up our system.  First a before photo, second an after photo, and third a zoomed in photo of the side pull rigged with double end line hooks.

Additionally, a small pocket-sized carpenter’s level is worth its weight in gold for ensuring you have continuous drop from spout through lateral to main line to the pumphouse.

After an exceptionally windy and raucous 2022, we revamped and strengthened our sap tank cover.

An old broken valve has been replaced by new hardware (valve with the white handle is the new replacement), and I even took a little hacksaw to knock the end of one handle off to get a bit more clearance.

The next big to-do list item is to get our research canisters sledded out into position.  A fresh 3-5 inches of snow will make that task bunches easier.

Hopefully you are whittling down your checklist, or if you are a producer from southern Ohio or neighboring southerly state, you may already be making some syrup!  Heck, even as far north as Vermont, early tappers are getting a sap run already.  Hopefully this early warm spell is not indicative of yet another roller coaster season, but regardless – Wishing You a GREAT Season!

Upcoming Webinars – Weather & Worms

Two webinars are coming quickly on the calendar.  And yes, you read the post’s title correctly…

First, a perennial favorite speaker is coming to Future Generations University “Out of the Woods” seminar series next Thursday, January 19th.  None other than Aaron Wilson from Ohio State’s Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center will be discussing the weather and how it impacts your sugarbush.  If this talk is anything like usual, he delivers excellent information about general effects and then dials it in to the prognostications that seem to be developing for the current and upcoming sap season.  Click here to register – next Thursday night at 7 PM. 

And second – Wednesday, January 25th at 3:00 PM, Penn State Extension will be offering a webinar called “Stressors of Maple: Dieback and Mortality.”  The webinar will be recorded and sent to everyone that is registered.  The webinar will host speakers from Michigan Technological University and will cover what maple decline is, what is driving maple decline, how earthworms impact maples and native forests, and how to respond if you have maple decline.  For more information and to register for this January 25th webinar, click here.

Reverse Osmosis 101+

Ohio Maple Days 2022 did not disappoint.  The food was fantastic, the vendor room crowded, and the presenters shared a wealth of knowledge of expertise across a wide range of subjects.  Joel Oelke, Regional Sales Manager with Leader Evaporator/H2O Innovation, shared an encyclopedic wealth of knowledge regarding reverse osmosis leading up to the lunch hour.  Before we get into a few highlights, be sure to mark your calendars for next year’s conference December 8th and 9th!

At its simplest, reverse osmosis is a process by which sap is passed through a membrane to remove water thereby concentrating sugar.  The pure water pulled out of the sap is referred to as permeate.  The increasingly sugary solution – concentrate.  The benefits are obvious – it saves space on numerous fronts and greatly improves efficiency at the evaporator by reducing time, fuel, and labor.  While the list of pros is long, suffice it to say – reverse osmosis is one of the biggest technological revolutions the maple industry has experienced in the last 100 years.

While reverse osmosis is a true game changer for maple producers, the technology is also one of the most complex and expensive pieces of equipment in the sugarhouse.  It is easy to become intimidated by what’s necessary to implement and maintain a unit, and mistakes chalked up to the “school of hard knocks” can be expensive.  Here are just 5 rules of thumb that I pulled from Joel’s presentation to share in this article.

#1 – RO’s efficiency rating (how many gallons can a unit process per hour) is given at a solution temperature of 55 degrees Fahrenheit.  Because sap is kept at cooler temperatures to ensure syrup quality, you need to factor the lower temperature into your unit’s efficiency rating.  This is especially important to consider if you are shopping for a new RO unit.  Here’s a simple figure to calibrate your RO’s operating efficiency.  If you purchase a unit rated at 600 gallons per hour but expect to run sap at an average temperature of 40 F, you can multiply 600 by an efficiency downgrade of 0.75 (or 75%) and expect a 450 gallon per hour operating rate.

#2 – A second factor influencing RO efficiency is the concentrate level you are trying to achieve assuming you start around 2 Brix.  The more you want to concentrate your sap, the less efficient your unit will be.  Let’s continue with the example we started above in italics.  If you want to take 2% sap to 8% concentrate, your RO unit will run at the temperature-corrected peak of efficiency and achieve your calibrated 450 gallons per hour rate.  However, if you concentrated to something higher, say a 12% level, your operation would get dinged with an additional 30% loss in efficiency.  Here’s what the math would reveal – 450 gallons per hour multiplied by 0.70 = 315 gallons per hour.  Below is another figure to help you calculate the efficiency factor of concentration.  Remember, you must factor in both penalties – sap temperature and concentrate level – to properly estimate your efficiency rating.  And this all assumes you are running a clean, properly-maintained RO unit!

#3 – The desugaring, rinsing, and washing cycles are what keep your expensive reverse osmosis investment operating at the peak of performance.  Long story short – each cycle is critical to maintaining your unit.  And do not – especially in the wash cycle – generalize across all RO units.  Specific models and manufacturers use different membranes which are tailored to different types of soaps and chemicals as well as amounts of each.  Consulting the manuals and consulting with your RO manufacturer reps – just like Joel – is best practice for getting maximum life and performance out of your reverse osmosis technology.

#4 – Don’t let your improved efficiency get you in to trouble.  What I mean is this – sap that goes through a reverse osmosis unit comes out as warmer concentrate.  So, A) the process of reverse osmosis physically warms the concentrate above the temperature that it went in the machine, and B) you aren’t concentrating just sugar with an RO unit, you are concentrating everything – including microbes and bacteria.  The warmer concentrate coupled with a denser community of “nasties” can get a producer in big trouble if the evaporator is not synced up in work flow and their facility can not properly keep concentrate cool.  Stopping short of laying out any specific recommendations for how to integrate and streamline your sugarhouse sap-to-syrup processing, just know that the clock is ticking extra fast once you start concentrating sap.

#5 – If you properly size, run, and maintain an reverse osmosis unit, you can expect roughly a 3-year payback on your purchase when accounting for saved fuel and labor.  A rough cost estimator predicted a $4 cost savings per finished gallon of syrup using fuel oil in a 110 gallon per hour evaporator.  Obviously there a lot of moving parts for each unique scenario, but the bottom line is this asset does not 10 years to recoup costs.

Hopefully these quick 5 points help you make sense of reverse osmosis and how you might consider incorporating or upgrading an RO unit in your sugaring operation.  Thanks for an extremely informative talk Joel!

Not Just Sugar Maples – Part II

Ohio Maple Days 2022 did not disappoint.  The food was fantastic, the vendor room crowded, and the presenters shared a wealth of knowledge of expertise across a wide range of subjects.  I was among those speakers, and Abby van den Berg and I presented a pair of talks that focused on those other maples.  Last week I shared a quick rundown of 20 short statements that summarize the Ohio work we have done from a high bird’s-eye viewpoint.  This week, we’ll check out Abby’s perspective from Vermont which focused on 4 central questions regarding red maples.  Before we get into it, be sure to mark your calendars for next year’s conference December 8th and 9th!

Abby van den Berg asked and attempted to answer 4 main questions of red maple.

  • Red maple, Are you as sweet as sugar maples?
  • Red maple, Do you have lower yields than sugar maples?
  • Red maple, Do you slow or stop running earlier than sugar maples?
  • Red maple, Does your sap make inferior or different-tasting syrup than sugar maples?

My main disclaimer, and one that I know Abby would echo, is that the answers she provided are pertinent and specific to a single research study in Vermont.  All of the answers should not be directly applied to Ohio, but there is certainly LOTS to learn and consider.  Why?  Well, Vermont is not Ohio, and this research is on reds and we have mystery maples.  So for a host of reasons – please learn from this incredibly interesting study, but do not directly project these results into your own woods.

FirstRed Maple, Are you as sweet as sugar maples?  The answer here is not a surprise, the answer is “no.”  Abby’s data was “very crude” by her own words, but Brix analysis shows that red maples track 0.2-03 Brix beneath sugar maples most of the season.  This is supported by our Ohio study and consistent with patterns we have observed.

SecondRed Maple, Do you have lower yields than sugar maples?  From the perspective of statistical difference, no – red maples do NOT have lower production potential than sugar maples.  In the Vermont studies, heavy sap flow counterbalanced the slightly lower Brix levels to result in similar production outputs between red and sugar maples.  Does this mean they are identical or equal?  Not necessarily, but per the study design, they are not different.

ThirdRed Maple, Do you slow or stop running earlier than sugar maples?   No.  The Vermont study produced no evidence that red maples slow down earlier than sugar maples.  Is this consistent with our Ohio results?  No.  Why?  We have some guesses and some hypotheses we’ve discussed, but this potential difference will be one to focus on as we learn more and more about these systems.

FourthRed Maple, Does your sap make inferior or different-tasting syrup than sugar maples?  A tasting experiment pitted red maple syrup (top row) against sugar maple syrup (bottom row) that was produced by trees in the same woods with the same methods at the same time under similar conditions as tightly controlled and identical as humanly possible.  Late-season syrup was deemed similar with respondents not able to differentiate between the 2 syrups.  Early-season syrup however did produce detectable differences in taste and profile.  Further research is ongoing to trace potential differences back to a source – was it a difference  in carbohydrates or invert levels, volatile aroma or flavor compounds?  Abby was not totally sure just yet, but I am sure we will find out what she discovers.  The most important finding here is that red maple syrup did not produce detectable late-season off-flavors as that is a common suspicion among maple producers.

You can read more about these results in the following article and recorded webinar:

Red Maple as Crop Trees for Maple Syrup Production

 

Not Just Sugar Maples – Part I

Ohio Maple Days 2022 did not disappoint.  The food was fantastic, the vendor room crowded, and the presenters shared a wealth of knowledge of expertise across a wide range of subjects.  I was among those speakers, and Abby van den Berg and I presented a pair of talks that focused on those other maples.  Abby’s perspective from Vermont and focused mainly on pure red maples (come back for Part II next week for those highlights), and my perspective sharing from the basis of our ACER-funded research on Acer freemanii, Freeman’s maple, or just “rilver” for short.  Before we get into it, be sure to mark your calendars for next year’s conference December 8th and 9th!

Let’s try this recap in a series of short statements.

1) Sugar maples are the gold standard for maple syrup production – there is no disputing that.

2) But other maple species probably deserve more love than they have traditionally been given.

3) Mounting pressures from climate change, forest pests, and a host of other reasons make other maple species more important to consider than ever before.

4) Because of the above, it makes sense to learn more about other maple species production potential.

5) We thought we had simple (red x silver) hybrid maples in the OSU Mansfield research sugarbush where we have our single-tree research stations.

6) We thought wrong.  Turns out the hybrid maples are more mysterious than that – stay tuned for further genetic testing!

7) Regardless of what other variety of maple we are working with it still made sense to compare their production potential and other characteristics to sugar maple.

8) Research began in the 2021 as we pulled over 20 sugar maples and 50 of the mystery maples into single-tree sap collection chambers that measured daily performance.

9) Research techs and research PI quickly learned that maple research can be icy cold!

10) The 2021 season was historically bad and we had 5 roller coaster runs total.

11) During the 2021 season, our mystery maples maintained Brix levels better than sugar maples albeit not quite as sweet overall as sugar maples.

12) Mystery maples lost ground to sugar maples in terms of sap production volume as the season got later and later.

13) Surprised yet?  Maybe not.  But consider this – the best half of our mystery maples OUTPERFORMED the worst half of our sugar maples in terms of syrup production potential.  Would that also hold true for 2022?

14) Fast forward 11 months to yet another choppy, wild, and erratic 2022 sap season.  When will we have another “normal” sap season?

15) Note to self, might have to add another 10 degrees to y-axis of Sap Run graph in 2023.  I surely hope not!!

16) More in line with studies elsewhere, our 2022 mystery maple trial trees matched or outpaced sugar maple’s sap volume production up until the final sap run of the year.

17) Brix consistently tracked 0.2-0.4 points below for mystery maples as compared to sugar maples.

18) Ultimately, we’re excited and hopeful for a “normal” 2023 season to collect data from a more representatively average season.

19) In the interim, both years suggest that mystery maples are not to be overlooked especially if you are an operator using reverse osmosis in your sugarhouse looking to expand your number of taps.

20) Stay tuned for 2023 – our 3rd year of ACER-funded research investigating alternative maple species production potential.

Getting Down to the Business of It All

Mark Cannella, Farm Business Management Specialist for University of Vermont Extension, ventured down to the Buckeye State to kick off our Ohio Maple Days weekend on Friday, December 9th.  Mark’s half-day seminar helped nearly 20 maple producers give serious consideration to their maple business plan.  From modules on strategic planning to marketing to managing finances and calculating true profitability, group discussions and active work sessions engaged participants.

No matter the scale of a single maple operation, our commodity market is determined by a host of macro factors that are sometimes easy to observe but as often are difficult to suss out.  At the level of the single operator, those macro factors mingle with local variables to produce a host of challenges and opportunities that vary year-to-year and even within a single season.

Participating operators asked hard questions that forced good conversations – conversations that sometimes ended in relatively clear answers, other questions that resulted in more…well, questions.

“How do I transition from a hobby to a business that can support my whole family?”

“Should I make that change truly believing it will be good for my family business in 2 generations future?”

“How can I better care for my trees?”

“How do I balance the need for equipment upgrades with the challenge of having enough labor to increase my number of taps?”

“How do I juggle maple and the rest of my responsibilities?”

These questions and more provided excellent fodder to stimulate 4+ hours of lively discussion.  Thanks to Mark for bringing his business planning expertise to Ohio!

Additional online business planning tools can be found at www.maplemanager.org.

Fall Maple Assessment – Get Ready for Next Season, Part II

Read the first installment of our autumn mini-series “Get Ready for the Season” here.  The first article focuses mainly on the woods, and Part II sticks to the sugarhouse.

It is perfectly natural after a long hard season to put off sugarhouse cleanup and maintenance. This can be a major mistake. Getting the sugarhouse ready for the next season starts immediately after last season has concluded.  Dirty unmaintained equipment sitting around in warm weather can promote the worst of unsanitary conditions that will surely haunt you into the upcoming season.

Let’s start with storage tanks. Not everyone can afford bright shiny stainless-steel tanks that are easy to clean. Many producers substitute more affordable plastic tanks. Unfortunately, plastic tanks have earned the reputation of lowering syrup grades due to rapid microbial growth. All of the elements for rapid growth are present. The sap supplies the food and the tanks warm quickly. Where do the microbes come from? They are hiding in the porous interior of the tank. That porosity is what makes it almost impossible to thoroughly clean a plastic tank. You may get by for two or three years but sooner or later the tanks will have to be scrapped. The cost of three or four plastic tanks over a ten-year period can add up quickly. Consider the economic value of a stainless tank that should last forever if handled and maintained properly.

Reverse osmosis (RO) has revolutionized the dynamics of the maple syrup industry. For the commercial producer, the RO has drastically slashed labor and fuel expenses. When it comes to maintenance, the most critical element is maintaining the primary filter or membrane. Membranes that are not maintained properly can be severely damaged. Damage can lead to the passing of sugar into the permeate tank. This results in a hidden loss of profits going down the drain. Always check your permeate for abnormally high sugar content. Washes of both soap and acid are used in the cleaning process followed by an extensive permeate rinse. A properly maintained membrane should last for many years. Another critical but oft overlooked issue are increased levels of chemicals being discharged from the sugarhouse. When you are using an RO, you are discharging thousands of gallons of liquid through your sugarhouse drains. You are also discharging acids and soaps through the same drain. If possible, neutralize the chemicals by bringing both acids and soaps back to a neutral 7.0 pH before you flush them down the drain. Neutralizing agents are readily available from your maple dealer.

Producers tend to overlook where and how they store there concentrate before boiling. When you concentrate sap, you are creating the perfect storm for a microbial outbreak. You are doubling, and in some cases tripling, the amount of sugar in the tank. When you run the sap through an RO you also boost the concentrated sap’s temperature by at least 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Assuming the concentrated sap is housed in a relatively warm sugarhouse, it makes no difference if you are using a stainless or plastic tank, microbial populations always explode in concentrated sap. The first line of defense is to boil the concentrate as soon as you can to prevent grade deterioration. If you only have enough money to purchase one stainless steel tank, make the purchase for your evaporator feed tank. This is doubly true if you are concentrating with reverse osmosis.

One of the best maintained pieces of equipment in any maple operation must be the evaporator. After all it is the center piece of most sugarhouses. Producers tend to take pride in how their evaporator looks inside and out. Here are a few things to consider before you start the season. Make sure all of the fittings and gaskets are functioning properly. It is good idea to do a test boil before using. You do not want to waste sap or concentrate if there is a malfunction. During the season, always start each day with clean niter-free syrup pans. Do not let niter build up. Excessive niter can cause a pan to overheat and even burn. Make sure you are using defoamer properly and in the proper place. If you are going to be shut down for a long time due to a warm spell, plan on draining your pans to prevent microbial buildup. Attempting to keep the liquid on the evaporator will only lead to contamination of fresh sap when it arrives and the production of poor-quality syrup. In a freezeout situation, make sure to inspect your pans to make sure they are not freezing solid. If they are, light a fire and thaw out your pans so they do not break. Again, emptying the pans is not a bad idea. Along with your evaporator make sure your filter press and auto-draw off are functioning properly. Improper maintenance of your evaporating and filtering equipment can result in the production of poor-quality syrup that will cost you money in the long run.

After the season, make sure everything is cleaned and stored properly. There are many ways to clean an evaporator and it comes down what works for you. Avoid using any kind of detergent in the cleaning process. Hot water and elbow grease wins out every time. At the end of the season, make sure your syrup is stored properly. There is nothing worse than opening a barrel of your top grade, only to find out it has spoiled. Syrup is best stored in a location where it stays below 70-degree Fahrenheit. Even though you hot pack your syrup it is wise to roll the drums, if possible, several times during the offseason. This agitation helps eliminate moisture condensation from collecting at the top of the drums due to temperature fluctuations.

If you are planning to upgrade your sugarhouse, keep in mind that this is the best time to make sure your facility can pass a state or federal inspection. All of the rules and regulations are available online through OSU Extension.

You have now done a comprehensive evaluation of your sugaring operation. What are your most cost-effective “low hanging fruit” items? Act now – season will be here before you know it.