Out of the Woods Seminar

The Out of the Woods series from Future Generations University in West Virginia hit an important topic several weeks ago, and the recording of “Two Seasons – Sanitation & Tubing“ is now available as a Recording.

The Talk Title “Two Seasons” is a play on this quote from Garnet Whetzel.

“There are only two seasons in a year.  Maple season and getting ready for maple season.”

I am quite sure that every single maple producer exists in this shared reality – the list of things to do is almost certainly greater than the amount of time you have for working on your list.  But there a few things on your annual list that you just cannot afford to ignore!  Keep in mind that a good chunk of this presentation assumes a 3/16th tubing system, but there are lots of great lessons to be learned from the talk.  Chiefly this, compelling evidence is shared on the benefits of sanitation (using the Krueger method with calcium hypochlorite) from a nice experiment out of the Mountain State.  Results from this experiment are followed by a great discussion on the bacteria, yeast, and mold challenges that maple producers face in the woods and in the sugarhouse.

2024 Maple Season Summary

Thanks to Les for his take on the 2024 maple season. 

If you are an Ohio Maple Syrup Producer, how would you describe your 2024 maple season in one word? Early, different, weird, disappointing, average, surprising, long, short, exhausting, and the list goes on – perhaps even some words that cannot be printed here.  Many local producers experienced the earliest start in the history of their sugarbush.  This was followed by the earliest shutdown in the history of their sugarbush.  Early tappers (NEW YEAR’S DAY!) were the fortunate ones, producing three quarters to a full season crop.  There were some hardcore traditional sugarmakers that like to go by the calendar; it was a one run and done for them.

From a metrological viewpoint, this was as close to a record winter as you can get, and we are not talking about cold.  The climatological Winter – December, January, and February – was the warmest since 1931.  By month, December was the third warmest on record.  January was close to average except for the lack of snowfall.  You need melting snow to keep moisture in the ground, and sap flowing from the trees.  February was one of the warmest on record.  This was all predicted in NOAA’s three month forecast back in December 2023.  If you are a maple producer, it was fairly clear.  You were warned.  Waiting until the first week of February to tap was not a good move, but it was better than waiting until President’s Day or when the Moon was right or because Grandpa always tapped that weekend.  The middle of January saw the only extended cold period, but after that, it was game on.  Those that tapped in early January were ready to harvest the big runs that came at the end of month and into February.  This gave the early birds a running start at an average to above average season.  The downside was low sugar content in the sap.  Despite getting record volumes of early sap, the sap to syrup ratios were dismal.  50-60 to 1 ratios were common and widespread.

This is a very lighthearted overview of a very challenging year.  On the positive side, producers made some very good syrup that did not have quality issues.  Officials at the Geauga County Maple Festival Contest reported, “The overall grade color was darker than last year.  Flavor was decent and was representative of the color.  In a year like this with an abundance of warm weather, you would expect some off-flavor syrup to show up in the contest, but that was not case.”  Thanks to adequate crop being produced in Northern New England, there will be no shortage of maple syrup for US markets.

When you have higher than average seasonal temperatures, it is far more likely that off flavors will appear.  I have noticed that it is not uncommon to make Amber and even Golden syrup with an off flavor at the very end of the season.  The off flavor is the product of sour sap, or possibly buddy sap.  Most off-flavor issues are the result of warm weather leading to a massive buildup of microbes in the sap.  An indication of this quality breakdown is rust colored niter in your filter press that is very hard to filter out. Ignored, conditions will go to slime and end up as ropy syrup.  This is caused by bacteria in the families Bacillus and Micrococcus.

Now comes the real challenge!  How do we prevent the possibility of this poor-quality product from entering the market in a year when a large percentage of producers may be facing a shortage of syrup for their customers?  Do you bottle the syrup and hope no one notices?  After all it may have good color. The rationale of the past was that most customers would not pick up on the off flavor.  After all, they are used to high fructose corn syrup imitations.  The answer is clear – never compromise the quality of the syrup you sell.  Quality should always be the trademark of your maple operation.

In the end, what have we learn?  We added one more year to the string of abnormally warm maple seasons that we have experienced over the last 5 years.  Ohio producers need to be ready to tap earlier than they have in the past.  If you are an experienced maple producer, you know when the time is right.   This means that in 2025, when New Year’s Day rolls around, you may need to cut the party short and head to the woods.  In fact, it is not a bad idea to be ready before Christmas.  This is not a recommendation to tap in December, just an admonition to be ready.

Maple as STEM – PAST Party

We had an opportunity to table as an Experience Partner at the PAST Foundation‘s STEM of Spirits event this past Friday evening.  What a wonderful event and chance to showcase maple as a local food that supports local communities and is full of elegant and interesting science!

We chose a couple engaging angles to highlight the STEM of maple syrup to our guests.  Attendees learned about the differences in cancer fighting properties between early season Golden Delicate syrup as compared to later season Dark Robust profiles.  An informal poll of taste preference ended in a dead heat with the exact same number of people preferring Golden Delicate as Dark Robust.  Each syrup has its own medical benefits (Read more in our September ’23 Maple REVIEW article), and participants decided the only rationale response was to consume copious amounts of both!  Smart folks.

Another activity invited guests to use a sap hydrometer, digital refractometer, and traditional refractometer to calculate Brix of “sap” from 3 different maple trees.  One tree was a healthy full-crowned sugar maple.  The second was a stressed sugar maple.  A healthy “rilver” represented tree number 3.  A graduated cylinder varied sap output volume, and sap Brix varied by tree species and tree health.  A dry erase marker to record data on the tree canopies and some quick calculations to estimate final syrup output, and we transformed the evening’s guests into researchers.  The quick study’s results suggested that while maple species does matter, managing for healthy trees and forests is the highest priority for maple producers – regardless of maple species composition.

A bit of information about spotted lanternfly and some visuals to help showcase Jones Rule and the boiling process rounded out the display.  We’re excited to see Ohio State Maple continue to build momentum as we continue to expand our maple education and outreach footprint.

Mini Maple Arboretum

The new additions just keep coming at the OSU-Mansfield sugarbush.  12 trees were planted for a miniature arboretum right off the corner of the new maple pavilion.  With a collection of all the common maple species in Ohio, we are now better equipped than ever to teach tree identification workshops.  Sugar maple, boxelder, silver maple, black maple, red maple, “rilver” maple, Norway maple – single trees of some, multiple representatives of others.

A summer watering schedule, some mulch around their bases, and protection from the local deer herd should give these a great shot at surviving and playing a role in many maple workshops in the future.

Glad to See It Come, Glad to See It Go

Thanks for Les’ contribution last Monday in his post – Is February the New March?  This is a more Mansfield-centric take on the 2024 season with a more in-depth analysis of statewide Growing Degree Days to compliment last week’s content.

What a season!  That sums it up in all the best and worst ways.  I stand by the words I typed in my 2/19 post – I believe we nailed our tapping date just about perfect.  The first run to follow was a marathon of 7 or 8 straight days, and the second run of the year culminated in our making syrup off the new OSU teaching evaporator for the first time ever.  Though many producers’ woods performed below average in terms of sap sugar, our Brix registered consistently at 2.0.  Talk about some highs.

We knew better.  The weather folks are not infallible, but there was no denying the forecast that lurked.  Warm, warm, and more warm.  But unexpectedly, February 21st was the death blow for our season.  While we were over at Malabar Farms helping out with an NRCS workshop on maple, our pump decided to quit working.  Without vacuum, the productive days of our season were over.  With a full season, we would likely have stayed tapped in until March 4th and posted one of our better season totals.  As it turned out in reality, the 2024 season ended on a low.

Looking more broadly around the state, the progression of Growing Degree Days (GDDs) was alarmingly early yet again.  If there any producers still resistant to the idea of tapping earlier than more traditional dates, then I don’t know what it will take to change minds.

Observe – Click Play for an animation of GDDs from 2021 (below).  Pay attention to 2 data points in particular.  First, the GDDs accumulated through March.  Second, the scale of GDDs on the legend.

Now, you don’t even need to see a similar video of 2024’s GDDs to know we covered lots more ground in fewer days than the previous year’s example.  Long story short, earlier AND hotter.  Hello sap season double whammy, goodbye sanitation!  I don’t believe many producers will be heard pining – “Boy! What I wouldn’t give for another season like 2024!”  And if you did hear such a remark today, then you probably also heard them quip – April Fool’s!!

Is February the New March?

Remember when Les said he would come back at the season’s conclusion to tell you in 20/20 hindsight exactly what you may already suspect, he’s back to make some sense of the 2024 sugaring season!  Enjoy.

The Ohio maple syrup season ended on the first weekend in March.  This comes less than a week after President’s Day, the traditional starting date for the season in Ohio.  Of course, not this year as many Ohio producers started the 2024 season in January.  If you are a maple producer, you must wonder if the climatologist and everything we have been hearing about our climate is right.  Is February becoming the new March?  

Let’s analyze what we have seen and experienced in 2024.  OSU Climatologist Dr. Aaron Wilson has been telling us that the winters will get milder, and Spring will come earlier.  Once again, I refer to historical weather data to make a point using Weather Underground weather history maps.  Dating back to 2021, here is what I consider a relatively normal March (below).

Here is February of this year, 2024 (below).

It has been reported over the last several months that we ended 2023 with almost record-breaking high temperatures for November and December.  In fact, the climatological winter (December, January, and February) was the third warmest on record.  The 2nd warmest occurred in 1931.  The warm weather sent a warning to many maple producers, alerting them that something unusual was about to happen.  In Ohio, those that tapped in mid-January got it right.  Those tapping right after the first of the year were rewarded with 6 to 8 weeks of maple producing weather.  Many recorded over 14 boils before the first of March.  This year undoubtedly sets a new benchmark for early tapping.  Why did this happen and what can we learn from the experience.

The winter of 2023/24 followed the long-range forecast’s prediction.  With the exception of the invasion of a cold air mass in mid-January, the mild temperatures came back and continued throughout February.  This set up some extraordinarily good runs throughout the state.  However, a troubling and confounding factor was the overall lack of moisture.  I would say that many parts of Ohio were below average on moisture during this period.  Dryness in the woods is not good for maple production.  It is much preferred to have 4 to 8 inches of slowly melting snow, at the very least, lots of rainy days interspersed through the season.  I have seen woods that face north where the snowpack will last almost to the end of March.  These woods have produced good runs all the way to the end of March and even into April.  Not this year.

Here is the graph (above) showing the high, low, and average temperatures for the first two weeks in March.  The important thing to look at here is the minimum and maximum temperatures that clearly show we not only had daytime temperatures in the first two weeks March above 50 degrees F, but also had nighttime temperatures that approached and even hit 50 degrees.  This totally wiped out the freeze/thaw cycle, and we all know you cannot make syrup without a freeze/thaw cycle.  Sustained temperatures above freezing will undoubtedly be a recurring problem into the future.  Warm temperatures also accelerates the accumulation of Growing Degree Days, pushing the trees toward budding.  However, buddy sap did not end the season in much of Ohio.  It was the acceleration of microbial growth resulting from an abundance of unseasonably warm temperatures causing the sap to warm and foul systems.  It is almost impossible to make quality syrup under these conditions.  During the Ohio Maple Tour, I tasted multiple samples of syrup made in early March.  Just about all had that sharp taste of syrup made from sour sap.

Now comes the real challenge!  How do we prevent the possibility of this very marginal syrup from entering the market?  Especially in a year when many producers in states like Ohio had a poor year and now have syrup of questionable quality to sell.  Do you bottle the syrup and hope no one notices?  After all, it may have good color somewhere between Amber and Dark Robust.  The rationale in the past has been that most customers will not pick up on the off flavor; after all, they are used to high fructose corn syrup imitations.  The question now turns becomes, how much high-quality syrup will be made in the Northeast and in Canada this year?  Will the syrup they sell to the big box stores have better quality than what our customers can buy locally?  We already know it will most likely be less expensive.

In the end what have we learn? We added one more year to the string of abnormally warm maple seasons that we have experienced over the last 5 years.  For Ohio producers tapped in January, many experienced a near normal season.  Operations made some very good syrup that did not have quality issues.  Their markets are covered.  This also means that in 2025 when New Years Day rolls around, those producers who gambled right in 2024 will again be ready to tap trees at the first signal of good sugaring weather.  Unfortunately for many Ohio producers tapping later in the calendar, this year will be a hard lesson.  Those that tapped after mid-February found out that you cannot trust Mother Nature, because she does not read the Calendar.

Maple Events on the Horizon

Join Associate Professor, Dr. Stephen Matthews to learn about USDA Forest Service’s Climate Change Atlas.  He will introduce this tool that is based on over 2 decades of research with a goal to help us understand the impact of climate change on our trees. When you have heard us talk about red maple’s favorable position in the face of an uncertain future, the work of the Climate Change Atlas is what we are drawing from.  Register for the April 12th webinar HERE.

Future Generations University is offering a webinar this Thursday evening, March 21st at 7 PM.  The Appalachian-based program Out of the Woods hosts guest speaker Dr. Catherine Belisle (Cornell University) and Lindsay Kazarick (Future Generations University) to discuss maple confections and event-based marketing. REGISTER here.

Here’s a little bonus video to enjoy featuring Cornell University’s Arnot Teaching and Research Forest in New York.

SAVE THE DATE for 2024’s Ohio Maple Days – December 7.  We will be shifting locations this year due to a scheduling conflict at our normal venue at Ashland University.  You can look forward to this year’s Ohio Maple Days landing at Wooster’s Secrest Arboretum.

And speaking of events, we hope everyone got to participate in Ohio’s Maple Madness Tour.  Whether by opening up your own operation to visitors or by venturing out on the tour yourself, Maple Madness is a signature springtime event that should not be missed.  We hosted somewhere just shy of 100 folks throughout Saturday, March 2nd at the Ohio State Mansfield campus.  Thanks to all who came, and a BIG THANKS to everyone who led tours of the wetlands, sugarbush, and kept the evaporator steaming all day long.


Tapping & Timber: Monthly Maple REVIEW

After a several months long hiatus from our REVIEW articles, we are going to dive back into a Quebec research 2’fer that examines the effects of tapping on sugar maple tree growth rate and timber accumulation.  The Ohio State Maple team hosted a day’s worth of Maple Madness as a stop along the Ohio Tour less than 48 hours ago.  While giving sugarbush tours, hands down the most frequent question I fielded was whether tapping hurts the trees.  While some research has attempted to answer this question over the past decade or so, 2 relatively new studies out of Quebec take aim on this subject.

The question “does tapping hurt a maple tree?” can be answered from multiple different perspectives.  You might respond by citing information about the small percentage of a maple tree’s overall sap that is harvested through the tapping process, even with a high vacuum system.  You might make an analogy that a taphole is similar to an insignificant injury and point out that healed tapholes are barely visible to the eye just a year or less later and the percentage of compartmentalized wood is miniscule.  You might have another way of replying to that question.  The article “Effect of tapping for syrup production on sugar maple tree growth in the Quebec Appalachians” and the paper “Assessing the effects of sugar maple tapping on lumber production” provide additional insights to this delicate topic.

Before we dive in, a few caveats:

  • Caveat #1 – this issue has been addressed by different studies through different research labs through time, I’m examining these 2 studies today because they are recent and both from the same geographic area, Quebec.  Perhaps we will address some of the other work conducted in this space in future REVIEW articles.
  • Caveat #2 – The studies are from Quebec.  Stated another way, these studies are not directly applicable to Ohio, but we can certainly learn from them regardless.
  • Caveat #3 – both studies are based on tapping recommendations that encourage tapping to begin when a tree is 7.5-9.1 inches in diameter.  This recommendation in comparison to more conservation guidelines that we teach locally of 10″ minimum before tapping layered in with the fact that growth productivity is higher in Ohio than Quebec, and we have additional reason to not assume 1 to 1 transferability of results.

The study that focuses on tree growth rates was conducted by a foursome of researchers (Ouimet et al.) back in 2021.  They examined tapped and untapped trees within 7 Quebec maple woods on vacuum tubing systems.  The normal stringent criteria were applied to ensure trees in each group were as similar as could be except for the main treatment variable: tapped or not tapped.  Ouimet and crew worked off a primary hypothesis that tapping sugar maple trees would remove enough of the non-structural carbohydrates (sugars) that tree growth rates would be higher in untapped trees versus tapped trees.  Restating their hypothesis another way, extracting sap from sugar maples is in direct competition with resources needed for tree growth.

What did they find?  In 6 of the 7 sugar bushes, there was no effect of tapping on tree growth rates.  In the 7th site however, tapped trees grew 33% slower over the tapped year period (10 years) than did the untapped trees.  A partial explanation seemed to be that soils in that particular forest were strongly Ca-deficient; however, similar decreases in tree growth rate were not observed in 2 other woods that also suffered from low Ca levels.  Truth to be told, the team was scratching their heads a bit over the inconsistent results stating the “relatively small NSC [non-structural carbohydrates] allocation to syrup production might explain why we did not find a consistent tree growth response to tapping.”  In the most elementary of terms, tapping did not seem to trouble the majority of trees in the study.

The second study coincidentally also featured a four-person research team, and the research utilized data from 17 different sites within Quebec’s public forests.  Forest stand management scenarios (how and when to harvest trees) and lumber yields were simulated using a model that gathered data from over 2 thousand individual trees.  If taphole-stained maple lumber does in fact have niche value in local and regional niche markets, I would quibble with blanket statements such as the one they provide in the Introduction citing the National Hardwood Lumber Association – “Tap holes are considered defects, and they diminish the manufacturing value of boards.”  But the purpose of the work is clear, does tapping affect traditional lumber value of sugar maple logs?

Photo: Firth Hardwood Export Logs

What did they find?  Unsurprisingly, the answer is yes.  Of course tapping reduces net lumber volume in sugar maples, and tapping reduces the probability of an individual tree yielding a 10 foot saw log.  The details are what I found especially interesting.  Trees in the study were binned into 4 different health categories.  Trees with fungal infections, rot, or noticeable crown dieback were impacted by tapping more than trees that were healthy by visual measures.  While this too is unsurprising, I was most impressed by the findings that tapped sugar maples have a 85-90% chance of still yielding a 10′ saw log.  However, net lumber volume is still markedly reduced by tapping as the vertical segment of the trunk sectioned by the lowest and highest tapholes (or “butt log”) is defect.  Guillemette et al. concede in the very first paragraph of the Discussion that their results do not account for “craftspeople sometimes use these butt logs to produce boards with specific features resulting from tap holes or stain.”  I appreciated this admission.  Even so under a more traditional notion of what is valuable maple lumber, a notable rule of thumb emerges from their Implications for Management.  “Tapping reduces the net standing volume of sugar maple timber by approximately 40% and reduces the harvestable volume after the first 30-year cycle by approximately 40%.”  Economic modelling of one-time profits due to timbering need to be compared to the year-over-year return on investment from sugaring a maple woods, but the study does provide some interesting ways to frame and think about our original question – does tapping hurt a maple tree?

Ohio Maple NPR Soundbyte

You are never quite sure how a piece of media coverage will turn out after a couple of hours of interaction gets boiled down (yes, that’s a pun) to 4 minutes and 30 seconds.  But I’d say the NPR creative machine did a great job churning out something engaging that highlights work across the state from the past, present, and even into the future.

This is as good of a time as any to remind everyone of Ohio’s Maple Madness weekends on March 2-3 and March 9-10.  You can scan the following QR code off your monitor or visit the Tour Map to plot your own route.

At Ohio State Mansfield, we will be hosting our Maple Madness event on Saturday, March 2nd – we hope to see you there.  Come hungry!