Fall Maple Assessment – Get Ready for Next Season

The leaves have changed and have mostly fallen from the trees.  In some corners of Ohio, the first snow has already fallen.  For maple syrup producers, that means the push to get ready for a new season is upon us.  This is the best time of year to walk through your entire operation and systematically appraise your operation.  Now is the time to walk your sugarbush with a notebook in hand.  This assessment process allows you to locate the little things that make a big difference when the sap starts flowing.

Begin by looking at the most logical place first – your trees!  What condition are the trees in?  Are they healthy?  Did the June storms cause wind damage to the crowns?  The health of the trees will determine the number of taps per tree, and to some extent, the depth of your taphole.  If trees appear stressed, consider tapping a bit shallower (1.5 inches) rather than the full 1.75” or 2” depth.  It is not unusual to rest a tree for a season, allowing it to overcome obvious stressors.

Now reflect on your tubing system’s performance the very first year it was installed.   Compare that year to the way your system performed last year.  Have you noticed a drop-off in performance? It is easy to blame a poor season on the weather; in reality, the cause could be the age of your system and some neglected repairs.  For many producers, the first inclination is run out into the woods looking for squirrel chews and start repairing lines.  Do not get me wrong, that is important, but it is just one stage of a more holistic leak detection process.  The first order of business should be to inspect the lines for more systemic degradation and disrepair.  I hope that everyone is starting every season with all new spouts?!  However, your assessment should look deeper still.

When was the last time you changed the drops?  How long are the drops?  Are they long enough to allow you to reach around the tree?  Thirty-two inches is a good starting point for drop length in established systems.  What condition are your tees in?  Bad tees lead to micro leaks that sometimes are worse than squirrel chews because they are harder to locate and might be ignored an entire season.  What condition are your laterals?  Do they need to be replaced?  Are you noticing a mold buildup in the lines?  Are your lines patched together because of multiple repairs and damage?  When you replace laterals, it is a good time to look at the overall layout of the lateral system?  Count your taps on each lateral to determine if one is overloaded.  Remember, any given lateral should only be carrying 5 to 7 taps.  Also look at the slope of each lateral.  Is it running straight and tight and downhill for best performance?  What about your saddles, are they leaking?  Old saddles, just like old tees, need to be replaced on a regular basis – at least every 5 years.  Old saddles are often one of the major causes of leakage in maple tubing systems.

The next area of concern is the mainlines.  Ultraviolet light and wind damage are major causes of stress on mainlines.  Mainlines are good for 10 to 15 years, but eventually they must be replaced.  Yes, that is an expensive project!  However, the benefits outweigh the cost.  Installing new lines also allows you to remove damaged and unwanted trees during the repair.  Sugarbush stand improvement is important as it will improve the overall health and productivity of your sugarbush in the long-term.  Hazard trees, such as standing dead ash, should also be dealt with during a mainline replacement project.

It is easy to see how performing a pre-season assessment of your tubing system can be beneficial.  And that is just the tubing system!  After you walk your sugarbush – clipboard in hand – go back to the sugarhouse and develop an improvement plan. What must you buy?  In what quantity?  When will it arrive?  Are their supply chain delays?  Rank everything you have found in order of importance and start chipping away at your list – sap season will be here before you know it!

It’s Time to be Counted – USDA Ag Census

Attention: Ohio Maple Producers

As many of you probably remember, USDA NASS stopped collecting Ohio’s maple syrup production data in 2019.  Since that time the Ohio Maple Producers Association, The Ohio State University Extension, and others have had no readily available annual data to use in the support of our state’s maple industry.  Without this information, the ability to present hard numbers in support of our industry to Ohio Department of Agriculture and Ohio’s Legislature has been limited.  Even though our ability to report annually is gone, Ohio Producers can report every five years via the Census of Agriculture.  In fact, just like the US Census, reporting to the Census of Agriculture is mandatory for all farmers in Ohio and the US.  On this note, I (Les Ober writing here) received the following request from Jean Lamontagne Executive Director of the International Maple Syrup Institute.

It’s Time To Be Counted!!

Greetings to all maple association leaders, please take note and inform your members.

 

“The Census of Agriculture is taking place this month! Every five years, the USDA takes a Census of all US Agriculture to update its complete count of America’s farms and the hardworking people who run them.

 

The census provides valuable information used at the local, state, and national levels to plan for the future and help ensure our country’s agricultural community receives the resources it needs. Participating helps inform decisions about policy, conservation programs, infrastructure, education, and more. It is also the only source of uniform, comprehensive, and impartial agricultural data for every county and state in the country. Make every voice count in the future of agriculture by participating in the census!”

 

All information gathered is completely anonymous and private.

 

 If you do not receive a census form in the mail in November sign up at 

 

https://www.agcounts.usda.gov/static/get-counted.html

 

Jean Lamontagne, MBA McGill

Executive Director IMSI

 

NOTE: It is important for our maple industry to respond to this survey and the annual NASS maple syrup survey.  An up-to-date, accurate and complete aggregate record of the US maple crop’s growth and yield gives producers, packers, and equipment manufacturers a competitive advantage compared to other businesses and industries that are competing for capital as well as public funding such as research grants. Being counted helps the entire industry’s ability to influence supportive public policy decisions at every level of government as well as benefiting from economic development programs.

Over the last two years, I have been working on a IMSI (International Maple Syrup Institute) Committee submitting proposals to revise the NASS Maple data collection protocol.  Significant progress has been made.  It is my sincere hope that if Ohio Maple has a positive response to the 2022 Ag Census, the state may be reinstated in some form.  This will only be possible if Ohio Maple Producers include their maple production data in the Ag Census along with the rest of any other commodity data produced on your farm.  Please support Ohio’s maple industry by including your maple data in the 2022 Census of Agriculture when it shows up in your mailbox this month.

It’s time to be counted!

Les Ober, Geauga County Extension Educator
NE Ohio Maple Syrup Program Coordinator
The Ohio State University Extension
Ober.10@osu.edu
440-834-4656

Ohio 2022 Season Summary – “Better Luck Next Year”

I suppose if you had to select one word that would describe Ohio maple syrup production over the last five years it would be “change.” Traditionally, maple trees are tapped on Presidents Day and the season runs until April. In the last five years, producers have been tapping trees earlier and earlier. In some cases in northeast Ohio, the last week of January. In more southerly portions of Ohio, many are tapping even earlier than that. In some years, producers have boiled a large percentage of their syrup in February. In many years – this year being no exception – by the time the Geauga County Maple Festival arrives, the actual maple season is a distant memory.  Seasons like 2020 will be remembered for excellent production. 2021 was dismal and forgettable for most. 2022 is a more difficult year to generalize.  A “one size fits all” label and commentary would be oversimplifying the season.

The first reports that reached my desk were that the 2022 season in Ohio was a bust. A half crop at best and for some that was true. For others, that was not the case. It all came down to location and timing. In parts of the state where you would expect a poor crop in a bad year, a full crop was produced. In more traditional areas of the Buckeye State, the result was less than favorable. Again, it all depended on the specific location of the sugarbush, when trees were tapped, and when the season stalled to a stop.

In Ohio, the 2022 season turned back the clock to a more traditional start. After a very cold and snowy February, the majority of the producers tapped within a week of President’s Day. The 2022 season was also a very intense season. The majority of the syrup was made over a short window between March 1st and St. Patrick’s Day. Heavy snows in February and heavier rain the first part of March resulted in an abundance of moisture in the woods. Two things happen when you have excessive amounts of precipitation. It translates into large volumes of sap, but it can simultaneously lower the sugar content within the sap. In 2022, that certainly was the case. A 60 to 1 sap to syrup ratio was not uncommon.

In the sugarhouse, producers reported that the niter had an uncharacteristic red cast that was hard to filter. For the majority of Ohio sugarmakers, the season ended on March 17th – St. Patrick’s Day. A few of the more adventuresome producers hung in until the last major freeze of the season on March 25th but the payoff was negligible. 2022 will be remembered as a continuation of the La Nina weather patterns experienced in 2021. Even with a more traditional start date, the season was again short with few big runs and low sap sugar. If you were lucky, you had an average year at best; however, most will chalk up 2022 as a 2nd consecutive disappointing season.

Mainline in Ohio State Mansfield Sugarbush

Better luck next year?!

Raising the Bar on Syrup Quality

Maple grading and syrup quality are major topics at just about every maple winter meeting. Why has this topic taken on a heightened sense of importance? What is driving this interest? As the popularity of maple syrup products continues to grow, we are introducing more new customers to pure maple syrup. As interest grows, so does the number of questions about content, grading and nutritional value.  Consumers are curious!

What is the difference between pure maple syrup and table syrup?

Is pure maple syrup truly a superior product?

Is pure maple syrup worth the higher price?  

In most stores, you can find maple syrup right above the pancake flour. Shelf space is minimal and is often shared with Log Cabin, Mrs. Butterworth, and other corn syrup derivatives. The first thing consumers notice is that pure maple syrup is substantially more expensive. They may also take time to read the labels. The lower priced competition has a multitude of ingredients. Many ingredients are difficult to pronounce and not something a savvy customer wants to consume. So, they gravitate to the pure maple syrup which contains only one ingredient, Pure Maple Syrup. Many assume that because they are paying a premium price it must be a premium product. Consumers today assume a direct relationship between price and quality, and for the most part, do not mind paying a premium price for something they truly enjoy.

You only have one opportunity to make a good first impression!

There is variability in pure maple syrup sold across the country. There are USDA Standards for color and density. Density is straight forward, at least 66.0 or 66.9, depending on where you live. But grading standards by color can be confusing. To add even more mud to the water, many states do not require grading; color grading is voluntary. Remember, much of the syrup marketed in the US, especially outside the maple producing regions, is sold in box stores.

Most of the time, syrup sold in a box store is good syrup. It is sweet and with an excellent maple flavor, but occasionally there is a surprise. Until a bottle of syrup is opened and tasted, a bad bottle of syrup often looks exactly like good syrup; although, there is a tendency for poor quality syrup to wear a more generic label. You might compare buying a generic bottle of syrup to buying a box of “Cracker Jacks”, you are wondering what sort of prize will be inside. Customers can avoid bad surprises by buying from local producers who confidently and proudly attach the name of their operation to the label.

The flavor of our maple products is the single most important aspect of maple grading. Flavor more than anything else sells the product; however, grading for flavor is also one of the least understood aspects of quality syrup production. Syrup flavor varies for a multitude of reasons. Some would say it is subjective, but it is not. Each grade has its own identifiable and unique flavor profile. Because each grade is unique and prized for its own reasons, blending grades is discouraged and should be avoided. However, blending syrup grades is not restricted and it does happen. So, what exactly happens to flavor when two grades of pure maple syrup are combined to achieve a more desirable color? To put it simply, colors blend but flavor does not. Blended syrup might look attractive, but the flavor is just off. While the average consumer may not detect the difference, a discerning palate will.

If the following principle is true, for every effect there is a cause, off-flavored syrup can often be traced back to mistakes made by the producer. No one who has ever run an evaporator will deny that. Ten minutes too long on the evaporator, poor sanitation or running too late in the season, can all result in off flavors and sub-standard syrup. Mistakes happen, and in most cases, they are not intentional. That syrup should be allowed to enter the on-the-shelf marketplace. To salvage the syrup, these mistakes often end up in a barrel sold on the bulk market for whatever price the producer can get. This is what everyone does, right?!

Overall, the industry does a good job of grading density and color and is gradually placing more emphasis on quality. However, it is the responsibility of everyone involved to know when something has gone wrong. Because we are selling a food product, we need to know where to draw the line. We need to encourage producers who want to learn more about the process of making quality maple syrup to attend local or regional maple grading and quality workshops. While state regulations may enforce a bare minimum, a state’s producers should strive for better than just barely passing. Raising the bar on maple syrup quality can only be achieved through mutual cooperation and education at all levels of the industry.

 

Footnote: Substandard syrup quality and grading errors aren’t just a brick-and-mortar problem.  Check out this article from The Maple News, courtesy of research done out of University of Vermont, that examined online syrup sales and these exact same issues.

How to Combat Buddy & Sour Sap – The Path to QUALITY Syrup (Part 4)

Prevention of sour sap is all about sanitation. Here are a few things to consider when developing a sanitation plan for your maple operation. As soon as the previous season ends, producers using tubing need to clean and sanitize their lines. There are many ways to do this, but the most important thing is to make sure it gets done. As the new season approaches, inspect your lines for sanitation problems, consider replacing not only the spouts but the drops and tees if needed. As the new season begins, producers using high vacuum should consider running your vacuum 24/7 to keep your lines clean, clear, and cool.  During the season, make sure you wash your holding tanks often to prevent microbial scum buildup.

Where sap is held for a long period of time, avoid using plastic tanks for long term sap storage. Plastic is porous and retains bacterial inoculum that will quickly generate bacterial growth. These plastic tanks are often referred to as commercializers, named after the old commercial grade of syrup that nobody wanted. Once a plastic tank becomes contaminated, they are almost impossible to clean and should be replaced.

In the sugarhouse, making quality maple syrup starts with your reverse osmosis (RO) unit. Concentrate must be evaporated as soon as it comes off the RO. Bacteria multiply quickly in concentrated sap. This is the result of a higher percentage of sugar in the concentrate. There is also an increase in the sap temperature as it moves through the RO. It may enter the RO at 40 degrees F or less, but when it comes out, it will be closer to 50 degrees F. High Brix concentrate, elevated sap temperatures, and a warm sugarhouse are the perfect recipe for taking good sap and turning it into a microbial cesspool if not careful. This is one of the reasons many producers are now considering using refrigerated milk bulk tanks to store concentrate. This cools the concentrate and allows more time to manage the boiling process.

Producers often accept the fact that concentrate left on the evaporator overnight will produce a darker grade syrup, at least until fresh sap is introduced.  This does not have to happen if managed properly.  Small evaporators should be drained if possible. Larger evaporators can be equipped with a wash system that allow the entire evaporator to be cleaned and drained. Once the syrup leaves the evaporator, the process of sanitation continues. Syrup should be filtered and placed in a stainless-steel drum after being reheated to at least 180 degrees F. There is an inherent risk when you attempt to drum syrup at lower temperatures. Spoilage happens when barrels are packed at low temperatures. The hot syrup and cold barrel causes condensation (H2O) which combines with the remaining air in the barrel ultimately resulting in mold and fermentation.  It is best practice to place filled barrels in a cool place like a basement or a barn that does not heat up. Another practice worth looking into, is to build a cool room by equipping  a small insulated room with an air conditioner.

When you re-open a barrel of syrup, you should have syrup that is ready to bottle. When you bottle your syrup bring the syrup back up to 185 degrees for packing. Syrup packed below 185 F is subject to spoilage and reduced shelf life. Going above 190 also creates several problems. And if the syrup peaks above 200 F, the syrup will start to foam, and niter will start precipitate. The only solution for this scenario is to filter the syrup again. You will also overheat your jugs causing them to contract and suck in if they are not 100% filled. Plastic jugs should always be filled within a half inch of the top and laid on their side to kill any bacterial that may have found its way in the jug.  If you pack in glass bottles, make sure you put your bottles in the oven at 200 degrees for a few minutes. Hot glass will not condensate moisture and you can eliminate most problems with this simple step. It is always good to pack several times over the course of the year to maintain the highest quality in your syrup.

Many years ago, there was a use for commercial outlet for sub-standard syrup. The majority was sold to the tobacco industry. It was used to sweeten chewing tobacco. That outlet for the most part no longer exists. There are places where substandard syrup could be used but its objectionable flavor drastically lowers its value. For this reason, there is now a movement to prevent this type of syrup from getting into the market. Bulk buyers no longer want to handle sub-standard syrup and if they buy it they are not going to pay very much for the product. In addition, there is a currently an effort by the International Maple Syrup Institute and others to promote educational programing to raise producer awareness about ways to avoid producing this kind of syrup. The reality is that there is very little economic return from sub-standard syrup production. With rising costs of equipment and inputs the production of anything less than top quality saleable syrup in today’s high demand market is foolish.

There you have it – a 4-part series starting with a lesson on phenology and how to track growing degree days, relating growing degree days to tree bud development, appreciating the differences between buddy sap and sour sap, taking sanitation seriously at every single phase, and PRESTO! viola! alakazam (if only it were that easy!!) – you are making QUALITY maple syrup!

Off-Tasting Syrup: Understanding the Culprits (Part 3)

Now that we have talked about tree phenology and maple buds and growing degree days, let’s the talk more about the main prize of every sugarmaker’s dream – QUALITY syrup!  As we get ready to embark on a new maple season, let’s go over some of the things that will help you to improve the quality of your syrup in 2022. We all know that paying attention to detail in the woods will pay off with big rewards; however, the place where paying attention to detail is most important is when the sap or concentrate is on the evaporator. The finishing process can make or break your operation. Maple production is becoming a very competitive business, and the producers making the highest quality syrup will rise to the top.

Here is an oversimplification of what happens during the syrup-making process.  Once bacteria are introduced into the sap, a conversion of sugars takes place. A portion of the maple sap, which is almost 100 percent sucrose, is converted into glucose and fructose. This portion of the sugar content makes up the invert sugars present in syrup. When the sap is heated (The Maillard Reaction – something you can read more about here) the color of the syrup and the flavor of the syrup is formed, largely based on the amount of glucose and fructose sugars and other factors happening at the same time.  Thus, the level of microbial interaction plays a vital role in determining the color, grade, and corresponding flavor profile of the syrup produced. So, as you can see not all microbes are bad, in fact they are essential to everything we love about maple syrup!

Sap flowing from the maple tree is sterile, so where do the microbes come from?

Microbial activity begins as soon as sap is exposed to the outside environment. Early in the season microbial development is slow due to the normally cold temperatures, but once warm weather arrives (above 50 degrees F), more and other strains of microbes begin to multiply in the sap. As the microbes interact with the sap, the syrup produced darkens and develops an increasingly bold and pronounced maple flavor. Microbe colonies continue to expand eventually resulting in very dark and viscous syrup with an unpalatable strong flavor. Because this degradation of the sap is more likely to occur at the end of the season, low quality syrup is often associated with tree budding which happens at approximately the same time.

If you did a taste comparison, you would notice is a definite difference between buddy syrup and sour sap syrup. Buddy syrup has a chocolate flavor akin to what a Tootsie Roll tastes like while sour sap syrup has a bitter sometimes fermented taste that stays in your mouth. If you boil buddy sap, it will produce a pungent unforgettable smell. Sour Sap thickens to the point where it cannot be evaporated and will be difficult to draw off the evaporator. In extreme cases, you can pour a stream out and it will suspend in midair. This is referred to as “ropey syrup”. Sour sap is a result of intense microbial activity that builds anytime during the season when environmental conditions are right for bacterial growth. Buddy syrup comes from sap collected when the buds emerge naturally from the tree. This is a normal physiological growth stage that occurs every year.

Both processes require and progress with seasonal warming. In a normal season, the two tend to occur simultaneously and accelerate at the end of the season. Though the two are correlated, it is important for producers to understand the differences if you want to avoid the problems associated with each.

 

Maple Leader Lost in Ohio

These are the words of Les Ober in memory of Karl Evans

 

It was a little over 5 weeks ago that I traveled to PA on a bright sunshiny day to help with the Lake Erie Maple Expo.  I remember thinking that we had finally rounded to the corner and a new normal lay ahead.  A month later Ohio successfully pulled off The Ohio Maple Days on an early December cloudy and rainy day.  Little did any of us realize this was a premonition of what was to come.

The following Wednesday we heard the news that the Ohio Maple Community had lost one of its own. The news left all of us speechless, asking why?  Karl Evans, current President of the Ohio Maple Producers Association, passed away on December 15, 2021.  Karl was only 51 years old leaving behind his wife Amber and two beautiful and amazing daughters Abigail and Anna.

I have known Karl for most of the years that I have worked for OSU Extension, and he took over one of the most historic maple syrup operations in NE Ohio when I was just getting started.  The woods he owned was formerly owned by Francis Manes.  Francis was a prominent distributor for the Leader Evaporator Company in NE Ohio.  Karl fit right in, taking over the Leader dealership, and developing May Hill Maple Supply.  Working alongside him was his longtime friend and fellow maple producer Ray Gingerich.  He changed his home woods over to a vacuum tubing system and was soon working together with Ray installing tubing systems across NE Ohio and NW PA.

When the idea germinated to start the Lake Erie Maple Expo, Karl was one of the first to sign on and make it happen.  At the same time, Karl became interested in working with the Ohio Maple Producers Association.  After several years on the Board of Directors, he took over the position of Vice President working alongside President Dan Brown. When Dan retired as President, Karl was elected in his stead. Karl was never one to seek out recognition.  He was rather shy and reserved, but over the 4 years I watched him gain confidence using his determination to build a stronger organization.  He represented Ohio as a Director for the North American Maple Syrup Council.  He also worked with Ohio State University lending support to develop the OSU Mansfield Maple Program.  His guidance and advice will be missed.

Evans is pictured here in his perfect maple tree orchard that he planted himself over the past 20 years at his farm in Orwell, Ohio.  Evans took great pride in this orchard saying he wanted to leave a legacy for his daughters.  Just like the straight rows of 300 maple trees, Karl will be remembered most for the straightforward and honest advice that he gave to his fellow sugar makers.

2021 Maple Production: NASS Survey in Review

The 2021 NASS Maple Syrup Production Report was published June 10th.  Production in the United States dropped 700,000 gallons from 4,111,000 in 2020 to 3,424,000 in 2021. Vermont production declined 500,000 gallons from 1,950,00 in 2020 to 1,540,000 in 2021. NY dropped 157,000 gallons from 804,000 in 2020 to 647,000 gallons in 2021. Oddly enough, Maine held steady missing last year’s production by only 5,000 gallons (495,000 gallons total). Maine’s production has been remarkably stable over the last three years. Of the seven states polled only Wisconsin showed an increase in production. The Badger State increased production from 265,000 in 2020 to 300,000 in 2021. Pennsylvania, the closest state to Ohio geographically and often mirroring our production, recorded 165,000 gallons in the 2021 NASS survey, down 13,000 gallons from last year. Ohio is not listed because they and six other states were dropped from NASS’ survey in 2019.

There were many reasons for this year’s decline in maple production. Nationally, sap was collected for 27 days compared to 34 in 2020. In most regions, prolonged cold weather delayed the season start even though this was not reflected in the statistics. The survey actually showed normal start and stop dates; the extended bouts of time when it was too cold for sap to run is obscured in the more general averages and reflected in the total collection days. Many states started around the first of February and then experienced a 3-week shutdown due to abnormally cold weather. This weather pattern was particularly hard on states like Vermont and New York. Once the weather did warm up, temperatures rose quickly and, for the most part, permanently dramatically closing the season by the start of April.

Another statistic worth looking at is number of taps. The number of new taps has not increased dramatically over the last 3 years in the United States. Taps counted 13,400,000 in 2019, declined in 2020, and rebounded back to 13,335,000 in 2021. Only the state of New York has shown a steady increase in number of taps each of the last three years.

Yield per tap is calculated as the amount of syrup (in gallons) produced per tap in any given year, and this measure is determined for each state. The yield per tap declined from 2020 to 2021, hardly a surprise given the shortened season. The United States average declined from 0.314 to 0.257. States like Vermont and New York saw a decline whereas Wisconsin was the only state holding levels above 0.300 gallons per tap.

What goes into a making a good yield per tap? Normally it indicates a higher level of production especially in the well managed sugarbushes. Consider the fact that this is a statewide metric that averages together producers on high vacuum with producers utilizing buckets and bags. A year like 2021 can be especially hard on bucket producers. Anything over 0.300 (roughly 1/3 gallon of syrup per tap) is considered good, and if a state exceeds this level, you can be assured the high vacuum, high volume producers are pushing 0.500 per tap or more. These are all good benchmarks to rank your personal performance as an individual producer. If you are producing just under a half gallon of syrup per tap in an average year you are doing okay. Is there room for improvement? Yes. There are producers in our own state of Ohio pushing one gallon of syrup per tap – a goal to shoot for!

Overall, the NASS 2021 report contained no surprises. Remember this is a domestic United States report only and does not reflect Canadian production. As we all know, north of the border production is what drives the maple market and that is not likely to change anytime soon.  Long story short, United States production fell this year, but syrup in reserve in places like Quebec will likely stabilize the overall market and prevent any large interruptions.

Author: Les Ober, Geauga County Extension

What to Expect for the Rest of the 2021 Ohio Maple Season

Just like snowflakes no two maple seasons are exactly alike.  No question about it, this season fooled me. After about 5 years of early tapping, along comes 2021.  During December and January, we experienced above normal temperatures leading to what many believed would be one more in a string of early tapping seasons.  Tapping in January has become almost routine across Ohio.  However, just like a deck of playing cards, every deck has 2 jokers.  This winter season we had two meteorological jokers.

The first was the presence of a strong La Nina with its trademark warmer and wetter weather conditions.  Hidden in the background far to the North was the second joker – the always volatile and never popular polar vortex.  A polar vortex is always a possibility during the winter months.  You never know when the jet streams will line up just right and push Artic air southward into our region.  This year we did not experience the full brunt of the vortex like we did in 2014.  The coldest air stayed well to the west of Ohio.  However, we did experience a cold spell that dominated 20+ days of February.

As result of the persistent polar vortex, the start of the 2021 maple season was pushed back until the last week of February and first couple days of March.  Even southern Ohio producers were forced to tap two to three weeks later than normal.  The first of March is not historically an abnormally late starting time for maple season in Ohio.  The one dominant factor that makes this season different is that our weather is still being somewhat controlled by a strong La Nina weather pattern.  The threat of an early warm-up and above normal temperatures are real.  And the first indication of that was the stretch of 60-70 degree temperatures experienced during the middle of the second week of March.  This was enough to trigger budding in red maples and silver maples of southern Ohio.

At the same time, many sugar camps in northeast Ohio set one day records for syrup production.  Sap flows were exceptional after the long cold spell of February.  As of March 12th, the same camps are reporting a half crop entering the third week of March.  The above normal temperatures experienced at the end of the second week, pushed the season close to the brink.  Conditions also caused a dramatic change in syrup grade, and Dark Robust and even Dark Strong profiles have mostly displaced the Golden grade of early season.

The next two weeks will determine the outcome of the maple season in Ohio.  OSU Climatologist Aaron Wilson is predicting a mixed bag of weather conditions for the rest of the month.  There will be some below freezing temperatures but nothing extreme.  For southern Ohio, the trend is for slightly above normal and for northern Ohio – normal temperatures.  Again, we may or may not see those colder low temperatures needed to reset the trees and delay budding.  What is also troubling is the lack of moisture.  2021’s recent precipitation trend is not typical for a La Nina year, and drier than normal conditions are slowly creeping into Ohio.  We need precipitation, snow preferred, to keep the sap flowing, but that key factor is largely missing in the forecast for northern Ohio.  At this stage, we need a hybrid of the two jokers to keep this season productive.

I will keep my prediction for the rest of March to myself, goodness knows the first two months of 2021 fooled me.  That said, I will be able to confidently predict the outcome the 2021 maple season in Ohio on the 15th of April.  What is it they say about hindsight?

 Les Ober, Geauga County OSU Extension

Choosing the Right Fuel (Evaporator Series *BONUS* Post)

When it comes to selecting a fuel source for your evaporator, operators should choose based on efficiency, not convenience. To convert 2% sap into 66 brix syrup, 400,000 BTU are required – this is constant for all fuel sources. The two most popular fuel sources, in today’s maple world, are wood and fuel oil.  Additional choices include natural gas, liquefied petroleum (LP) gas, and various wood products such as pellets have been adapted to fuel maple evaporators.

I created the above figure based on estimates generated from the Southern Maine Renewable Fuels Institute.  Based on the statistic above – 400,000 BTU are required to produce a gallon of syrup – I derived production cost estimates for each fuel source and compared burner efficiency. Fossil fuels have a slight edge when it comes to fuel efficiency. The reason they are so efficient is based on the type of burners used and the ability to extract a higher percentage of heating units from each fuel source.

How do you choose the right fuel source for your maple operation?

The ambiance of making syrup on a roaring wood fire has never been challenged. Wood is by far the most popular fuel source for evaporators. It is readily available. And most producers look at dead wood scattered about the sugarbush as something that needs to be disposed of anyway. For that reason, the true value of wood is seldom considered. As we will see later, the value of wood is very close to the value of fuel oil when it comes to making syrup. The true value of wood is based on the dollar value of cordwood. There is an old saying “cordwood has no value until it cut and stacked.” Its value is representative of your time and labor.

A standard evaporator will produce 22 gallons of syrup from a cord of dry wood. Without the major advances in wood burning technology, most open evaporators are rated at 40-60% efficiency. Heat units are lost at multiple locations across the evaporator. You can quickly see why many producers made the shift to more efficient oil evaporators even though they now had to pay for fuel. The efficiency of a wood-fired evaporator is in the design. No matter what the design, the basic principle of operation remains the same. A wood-fired evaporator draws heat from the flame produced in the firebox. The heat consisting of flame and burning gases is drawn by air movement under the pans and out the stack. The arch is designed to pull and lift the flame up a moderate incline eventually compressing the heat into the flues of the rear pan. The heat exits the evaporator through the stack at temperatures of 600-800 degrees F. Stack dimensions must be designed correctly for proper draft. Wood needs to be placed in the evaporator to facilitate maximum heat without choking the air and dampening the flame. This usually means the firebox should not be filled to the top. You need to allow space for air to enhance the flame. The wood should be fired at regular intervals. A general recommendation is every 5 minutes.

There have been many changes in modern wood arch design that increase the overall efficiency of the evaporator. Forced air injection along with highly insulated arches and firing doors make the modern wood-fired evaporator as efficient as their oil-fired counterparts. Some are rated 85-90% percent efficient. Such high-performance levels are the result of being able to totally burn the wood that is loaded and the ability to re-burn gasses given off during the combustion process (gassification).

Fuel oil is another popular choice among maple producers, and there are several reasons for this. Fuel oil burns clean and hot and is an ideal choice for larger operations that require high volumes of fuel. This logic has been tempered in recent years with the increasing use of reverse osmosis to produce high Brix concentrate and reduce fuel demands. Efficiency is relatively high nearing 80%, and 1 gallon of syrup can be produced for under 4 gallons of fuel oil.


Bio-diesel Evaporator.

Unlike wood-fired arches, oil-fired evaporators require a minimal draft. Oil-fired arches are designed to develop radiant heat. The burner flame creates a ball of radiant heat and that heat then hovers beneath the pans. Temperatures in an oil arch can reach 1000 degrees F. The movement and intensity of the heat is controlled by a barometric damper that restricts the movement of air through the stack. The damper maintains a uniform temperature by controlling the airflow thru the evaporator. If this control device is not present, the heat can quickly be lost up the stack and the performance of the machine will be impaired. The burner nozzle size and fire rate determine the intensity of the heat. If everything is working correctly, the flame will burn cleanly and the flame ball of burning fuel oil will be suspended in the middle of the fire box never touching the sides of the arch.

Natural gas is very similar to fuel oil. In fact, the burners today are very similar in operation. Natural gas is convenient and is probably a cleaner source of fuel than oil; additionally, efficiency mirrors fuel oil. Though the original natural gas burners were often inconsistent resulting in hot and cold spots across the pans, there is now little difference in performance as compared to oil-fired evaporators. The biggest drawback is the availability of natural gas. Unlike oil that can be hauled to a remote location, gas needs to be piped in and is not readily available everywhere. If you are fortunate enough to have natural gas available, it is an excellent fuel option.


Natural Gas Evaporator.

The biggest drawback for oil and gas is the variability in cost as the oil market fluctuates. In 2020, we are living in a down cycle for oil and gas and prices are more appealing entering the 2021 syrup season. Within a few years, that could be a completely different story. Time will tell.

I would be remiss if I stopped the article there.

Regardless of what fuel source you choose for making maple syrup, the best single investment a producer can make is to add reverse osmosis to their operation. Despite the high initial cost of reverse osmosis, the cost of processing syrup is reduced significantly and the pay-off is long-term. Reverse osmosis not only allows a producer to process sap quicker, but it also opens the door to expand one’s operation. The savings on fuel are obvious. Before ROs, as reverse osmosis is commonly called, became popular the size of the operation was limited to the amount of sap that could be boiled on an evaporator. The only way to add capacity was to add evaporators, and some of the larger operations were running four, five, and even six to handle peak sap flow. Today, those same operations now employ modern RO systems with multiple membranes that can handle sap coming from thousands of taps. And using less time and space to do so. Reverse osmosis revolutionized the North America Maple Industry.

Author: Les Ober, Geauga County OSU Extension