Optimizing the Performance of My Vacuum Tubing System, Part III

The goal of the previous two articles (Part I, Part II) and this final installment is for you to realize that there are many factors that go into installing and running a maple vacuum tubing system. All the factors are interrelated and each one needs to be careful considered on the part of the operator.  The below information is contained in the Cornell New York State Tubing and Vacuum System Notebook (NSTVN) written by Cornell University’s Maple Specialist Steve Childs.  Much of the information is these three posts is a synthesis of past content with some more recent best practice guidance.

Part I introduced basic concepts of vacuum in a tubing system, some different variants within vacuum systems, and the different factors (most well within the control of the producer!) that influence vacuum levels throughout a system.  Part II walked you through how to calculate vacuum levels within your system and how to ensure your production needs are met by your system’s capacity.  The final installment will help direct you towards a vacuum pump that will do the job you need it to do.

 

When someone brings up the subject of vacuum, one of the first questions producers ask is, “What size vacuum pump will I need to run my system?” They will also sometimes ask, “Will the old rotary vane pump my grandfather abandoned in the barn 10 years ago (or longer…) do the job?” The question I also ask back is this, “What vacuum level do you want to run at today and into the future?”

We should get the second question out of the way first. Grandpa’s pump was designed to milk cows, and Bessy would get a little fussy if the vacuum level were to jump above 15 Hg. So the simple answer is that Grandpa’s pump will work, but it is not designed for optimizing maple production. But if you are happy with a modest increase in production beyond simple gravity-fed lines, dust off the old rotary vane pump and run it at the recommended RPM. Moving on to where the maple industry has evolved.

To review, vacuum pumps are designed to remove air from the system, and we already know that vacuum pumps are rated in terms of their ability to remove cubic feet per minute (CFM) from the system. Two additional factors come into play when comparing vacuum pumps. One is the horsepower rating, or the power required to remove air at high levels of vacuum. As the air is removed from an enclosed area the molecules of air in that area become very sparse. A pump must work very hard to remove the remaining molecules of air in the system. The pump must also overcome the force of the negative pressure inside that enclosed area, and this challenge requires more horsepower. A larger pump with a higher CFM rating has a higher capacity to accomplish this task but bigger pumps also require higher horsepower motors. The final factor is pump speed. If you turn a pump faster your will move more air thereby increasing the pump’s capacity. However, over-speeding a pump can cause excessive wear on the pump. This becomes a critical factor when sizing a gasoline of diesel motor driven pump. Pullies need to be sized correctly or performance is sacrificed.

Caption: Vacuum gauge measuring 26+ inches of vacuum

Most of today’s liquid ring, flood vacuum, rotary claw and new age rotary vane pumps are designed to run at vacuum levels up to 29 inches. An important thing to remember is that all pump ratings and vacuum level capacities are preformed using a standard test at the factory removing air from a sealed vessel and a performance curve is developed. This is done in a controlled environment. Now the question becomes what happens when you lower the air temperature and increase or decrease the barometric pressure? The result is confusion. Today, many maple equipment companies are simply listing pump sizes by motor horsepower instead of by CFM capacity. I have personally never seen optimum conditions out in a sugarbush in February and March, and as pointed out above, motor horsepower is only one factor determining pump capacity.

Another question I have is this – “What is the likelihood of that pump reaching 29 inches of vacuum in your sugarbush?” How many times have you heard producers tell you that the pump gauge mounted somewhere near the inlet of the pump is reading 28 inches of vacuum and therefore he must be producing 28 inches of vacuum at every tap in his woods? The harsh reality is that out in the woods he might be struggling to produce 15-20 inches of vacuum. What has the producer not factored in? First, line loss because line diameter can be restricting flow and impairing the ability of the vacuum pump to remove all the air from the system. Second, the producer might have an abundance of leaks in his or her system. The reality is that the only vacuum reading that counts is the reading that is taken out in the woods at the last tap. Today in the age of maple tubing system monitors, producers can know exactly what level of vacuum they have at the end of each line. They can also monitor the level of vacuum at the releaser and make the comparison to the end of their lines and isolate and correct problems as they occur.

To determine what sized pump your operation requires, you should begin by constructing an evaluation like the one used in the NY State Maple Tubing and Vacuum System Notebook. Start by calculating the proper line size for the number of taps you have now and do not forget to think ahead regarding possible expansions you may make in the future. Factor in your equipment such as the releaser you want to run, whether you have lifts in your system and other CFM consuming features. Do not forget to build in some reserve performance to allow for possible leaks and for keeping up with your during peak runs. At this point, you should have a good idea of the right-sized pump for your operation. If you are right on the edge of meeting CFM demand, you should strongly consider buying a pump one size or even two sizes bigger than you planned especially if expansion is in your future. What’s the old adage? Buy once, cry once.

The Bottom Line

You have now made all the calculations and are beginning to understand the logic and principles behind setting up a vacuum tubing system. So what is the return on investment (ROI) for spending money on a bigger pump and increasing the size of your lines? For that answer, let’s look at yield research done at UVM Proctor Research Center. For the UVM study, the goal was to determine yields in systems up to 25 inches of vacuum. The results showed that sap yield doubles when vacuum is taken from 0 to 15 inches (8 gallons per tap). From 15 to 20 inches, the payoff was a 3 gallon increase, and pushing vacuum another 5 inches to 25 Hg resulted in an additional 2.5 gallons. At 25 inches vacuum, you have added nearly 14 gallons of sap per tap.  Even at 20 inches of vacuum, the additional yield is still over 10 gallons. In today’s market you can add a modern vacuum pump, a releaser, and moisture trap for less that $10,000. If you increased your production by 75% on 1000 taps, you would go from 250 gallons a year to 400. If those 150 extra gallons sold on the retail market for $50.00, your return would be $7,500 dollars. At that rate, you have paid for your vacuum upgrade in two years. What are you waiting for?!

This is the final installment in the 3-part series dedicated to optimizing your vacuum tubing system.  Be sure to leave questions or comment below.

Author: Les Ober, Geauga County OSU Extension

Optimizing the Performance of My Vacuum Tubing System, Part II

The goal of the previous article (Part I), this article, and the next is for you to realize that there are many factors that go into installing and running a maple vacuum tubing system. All the factors are interrelated and each one needs to be careful considered on the part of the operator.  The below information is contained in the Cornell New York State Tubing and Vacuum System Notebook (NSTVN) written by Cornell University’s Maple Specialist Steve Childs.  Much of the information is these three posts is a synthesis of past content with some more recent best practice guidance.

Part I introduced basic concepts of vacuum in a tubing system, some different variants within vacuum systems, and the different factors (most well within the control of the producer!) that influence vacuum levels throughout a system.  Part II will walk you through how to calculate vacuum levels within your system and how to ensure your production needs are met by your system’s capacity.

It is not uncommon during a peak or flood run for your vacuum to drop. If you maintain your lines and are running a tight, leak free system what is the possible explanation for this sudden drop in vacuum? One possible reason is CFM Allocation (air flow measured in Cubic Feet per Minute). In the most basic systems, all vacuum lines are properly and equally sized with the same number of taps per line and all running to a single collection point. The CFM requirements to maintain optimum vacuum will be equally distributed across the whole system. For example, if you have 4 lines of equal diameter connected to a 60 CFM vacuum pump each line would receive 25% of the vacuum CFM (15 CFM). According to theory that would be enough vacuum to run 1500 taps on each line. To use another example, if you are using a 20 CFM pump on a system with 4 equally sized lines and each line serviced 200 taps each for a total of 800, then you would be allocating slightly less than 5 CFM to each line – still more than enough to run each line. However, Total CFM utilization is not always dictated by the number of taps in the woods. One must account for the CFMs utilized by other components of the system, such as if you run a mechanical releaser and other add-on features like lifts or reverse-slope releasers. This reduces the number of available CFMs to accommodate tree loss and leak loss.

Caption: Vacuum Pump with Vacuum Gauge

Now let’s add some complexity to our scenario. Let’s say you expand your 800 tap operation by adding 600 taps to the backside of one of your 200 tap lines. What happens to your 20 available CFMs if you remove a 1” line and replace it with a 1 ¼” line to service the line that now has 800 taps. Now you have 3, 1” lines and the new 1 ¼” line servicing 1400 total taps.  Now you must calculate your line allocation to determine proper CFM distribution.

The first step is to calculate the cross-sectional area of each pipe which is easily accomplished with basic geometry’s “area of a circle” equation.

Cross-sectional Area of a Pipe
Diameter Area
¾” 0.44 in2
1” 0.78 in2
1 ¼” 1.23 in2
1 ½” 1.77 in2
2” 3.14 in2
3” 7.07 in2

Second, you need to determine the percentage of your total vacuum going to each line.  As a reminder, our example has 4 mainlines: 3, 1” lines and a single 1 ¼” line.  Here is a simple way to determine vacuum distribution.

The cumulative cross-sectional area of our 3, 1” lines = 0.78 + 0.78 + 0.78 = 2.34 square inches.  And for the single 1 ¼” line, 1.23 square inches.  The grand total sums to 3.57 in2.

Now divide the cross-sectional area of each line by the total to see what proportion or percentage of vacuum is being applied to each line.  You will find that each 1” line is pulling 22% of your overall CFMs which leaves 34% of the vacuum for the 1 ¼” line.  By CFMs (remember you started with 20 CFMs), each 1” mainline is pulling a maximum of 4.4 CFM and the single larger line is hovering just under 7.

You can quickly see that you are sending way too many CFMs to each of the 1” lines and not enough to maintain good vacuum on the 1 ¼” line.  A quick solution would be to combine the 3, 1” lines into a 1 ¼” manifold with the existing 1 ¼” line going directly into the releaser. That would result in the releaser with just two lines coming out each equally sized at 1 ¼”. This solution would re-allocate 50% of the CFMs to each line solving the problem of line allocation.

It is important to remember, you need to account for leaks that will introduce more air into lines. You might be able to maintain peak vacuum on most average days, but will your system  keep up with sap flow when the big run hits and you need to move as much air as fast as possible to maintain vacuum levels. If you have your lines sized properly, you now need to take the next step to determine what size pump you should purchase.

Stay tuned for Part III (What Pump to Purchase?) on Thursday and be sure to leave questions or comments!

Author: Les Ober, Geauga County OSU Extension

Optimizing the Performance of My Vacuum Tubing System: Part I

The goal of these next 3 articles is for you to realize that there are many factors that go into installing and running a maple vacuum tubing system. All the factors are interrelated and each one needs to be careful considered on the part of the operator.  The below information is contained in the Cornell New York State Tubing and Vacuum System Notebook (NSTVN) written by Cornell University’s Maple Specialist Steve Childs.  Much of the information is this and the next two posts is a synthesis of past content with some more recent best practice guidance.

When we talk about tubing systems, we have two roads to travel. One is a gravity system and the other is a vacuum system. A conventional 5/16” gravity system is not much different from running sap into a bucket. The yield is much the same as collecting sap in a bucket. When we add vacuum to a tubing system, we increase the sap yield 5% for every inch of vacuum we generate in our system. For example, if we produce 15 inches of vacuum in a line, we should be able to almost double our sap yield.  The first year after installation is always the best. As time on a system accumulates, wear-and-tear hampers performance.

Caption: Year 1 Production with a Brand-New System Should Provide Your Best Vacuum Levels

The definition of vacuum is the absence of air. The maximum level of vacuum achievable on any given day is determined by the barometric pressure. This means that our vacuum level can never exceed the barometric pressure in the location of our sugar bush. There are two way to measure vacuum pump performance, Inches of Mercury (hg) and Cubic Feet per Minute (CFM). Inches of mercury measures the negative pressure produced when air leaves the line. For example, if 50% of the air is removed then the inches of mercury should be somewhere between 14 and 15. At 25 inches of mercury, approximately 85% of the air has been removed from the lines. CFM on the other hand measures the amount of air being evacuated from the lines in units of cubic feet per minute. This is the amount of air that a vacuum pump is pulling out of the system in one minute’s time. Where is the air coming from? The answer is gas that is forming inside the tree and being expelled through the tap hole. As a rule of thumb, there is a 1 CFM requirement for every 100 taps on the line.  However, the biggest contributors are leaks allowing air to enter the system through damaged or aging tubing. This statement emphasizes the importance of managing leaks in a vacuum tubing system.

Caption: Vacuum Gauge Measuring Vacuum in Inches of Mercury (hg)

Speaking of leaks, the most important part of operating any maple syrup system is the time you spend in the woods making sure your vacuum tubing system is leak-free. Much of the rest of the article is spent discussing different technologies and equipment, but the simple fact of the matter is this – the best equipment with poor care in the woods won’t do you a lick of good when it comes to putting more maple syrup on tables of your customers. You must always account for leaks that introduce air into lines. You might be able to maintain peak vacuum on average days, but your system will show its weak points when sap flows are running fast and you need to move as much as air as fast as possible to maintain vacuum levels. Being able to spot and repair leaks quickly is essential. To accomplish this, you should design your system so you can isolate lines to pinpoint problems. This can be done by compartmentalizing your system with valves and vacuum gauges placed at the starting point of each line. The installation of a tubing monitoring system can be a wise investment as well, and the time saved and extra sap produced will pay for the cost of the upgrades in short order.

Back to our lesson on vacuum and barometric pressure. There are factors that have a direct effect on barometric pressure. One is altitude. As the altitude increases the maximum barometric pressure declines (rule of thumb: for every 1000 feet of elevation you lose 1 inch of vacuum). For example, at sea level, or 0 altitude, the average barometric press can be 29 inches; at 2000 feet, the average maximum barometric pressure obtainable is only around 28 inches. In addition, barometric pressure changes under different environmental conditions, and variations in barometric pressure caused by atmospheric changes can occur multiple times in a day. If we are running a vacuum pump under a low barometer at 2000 feet elevation, we might struggle to maintain 28 or even 27 inches of vacuum on a very tight well-maintained tubing system.

Sap moves down the line by gravity on a system of tubes suspended with wire. The basic components are spouts, tees, and drops moving sap from the tree into lateral lines. A lateral line should have no more than 5 to 10 taps per line and should be no longer than 100 feet in length. The lateral lines flow into main lines. In large systems, secondary mains flow into Wet-Dry lines and or trunk lines (large diameter lines) that move the sap to a central collection point.   To properly function, sap lines should be straight, pulled tight, and sloped downhill. To this point gravity systems and vacuum systems are similar, with the gravity system relying on slope and Newton’s law of gravity to move the sap.

Caption: 65 CFM Bush R-5 Vacuum Pump

When vacuum is added to the system, sap flow is aided by the movement of air.  The components of a vacuum tubing system are the vacuum pump, which is connected to lines via a sap releaser. Even though it is called a vacuum pump, it is not a pump in the conventional sense of the word and that is a bit confusing. A conventional pump moves liquid creating pressure ahead of the liquid and suction on the backside of the liquid. There are other types of pumps used in maple production. For example, a diaphragm pump is a conventional pump and that creates enough suction (secondary vacuum) to draw sap from a tree. However, if liquid is not present in the lines that suction can be lost.  A true vacuum pump moves air, not liquid and it creates a higher level of vacuum (absence of air) as the air is removed from the lines. That level of vacuum can be maintained with or without sap in the lines and will only drop if a leak allows outside air to enter the line.  Because the pump is designed to move only air, the liquid must be separated from the pump. This separation process is performed by a sap releaser. If sap enters the vacuum pump severe damage to the pump can occur! To prevent this from happening, a moisture trap is placed between the pump and the releaser.

Caption: Sap house releaser (right) with Vacuum Piston Pump (left)

A properly sized vacuum pump with a proper CFM rating will be capable of removing air faster than it is introduced. However, there is one factor that can interrupt and slow that process – line size. Vacuum lines are designed to conduct air to the pump. If your line diameter is too small, the air movement will be restricted requiring more time for the pump to clear air from the lines. This phenomenon is referred to as line loss. The smaller the line the more the air flow is restricted resulting in higher line loss. As an example, a 60 CFM pump set at 15 inches of vacuum hooked to a 3“ line can maintain over 40 CFM out to 5000 feet. However, that same pump hooked to a ¾” inch line is incapable of delivering 15 inches of vacuum at 2500 feet from the pump. Line loss increases the time (recovery time) needed to evacuate air from the line and restore peak vacuum level.

What is missing from this equation? The capacity of the line to conduct liquid. Every diameter of pipe has a maximum liquid capacity. The size of the pipe that is needed is determined by the number of taps flowing into the pipe. Each tap during a peak flow might contribute upwards of 0.2 gallons of sap per hour. Once you calculate the amount of sap flowing in you can determine the size of the pipe that is needed. There is however one caveat, the steeper the slope the faster the sap moves through the line thereby effectively increasing the capacity of a given-sized line on steeper slopes. Slope can also influence sap flow in other ways. The portion of the line, 50 feet or longer with the least amount of slope, will strongly influence sap flow. Examining this critical portion of your line might dictate a necessary increase in line diameter to allow for adequate air and liquid flow. Remember, you need to move air as well as liquid through a maple pipeline. To do this you must maintain the proper ratio of air to liquid inside the line so as not to inhibit sap movement. If you look at a working cross section of tubing it should contain 60% air and 40% liquid. This is a primary consideration when determining what size of line to use in your sugarbush.  If the liquid level increases beyond that ratio or is uneven (wavy), the air movement will be restricted resulting in a drop in vacuum.

Caption: Whip Connection to a Wet-Dry Line.

There are two ways to solve this problem. The first would be to increase the size of your main lines but 1 ½” inch and 2” tubing is expensive, and it adds to the overall expense of the tubing system. Still, increasing tubing size may be justified if you have a large number of taps coming into a trunk line. The other alternative is to install a dual-line conductor commonly known as a Wet-Dry Line. Composed of two lines of equal size (or a dry line slightly larger than the wet line), a Wet-Dry system can excel at moving sap across flat areas or areas where multiple secondary mainlines merge. Secondary mains may enter the Wet-Dry line at a booster, or a line configuration called a whip. This allows sap to move down the wet line without impeding the airflow in the dry line. This set-up is particularly useful in flat areas where slope in minimal and sap flows slowly which may inhibit the necessary amount of air flow. Wet-Dry lines can be a cost-effective way to move sap through areas of minimal slope.

Stay tuned for Part II in a couple of days and be sure to leave questions or comments!

Author: Les Ober, Geauga County OSU Extension

Maple Syrup Included in USDA CFAP Program

As of August 12, 2020, maple syrup producers who have been impacted by the pandemic will now be eligible to apply for financial assistance from the USDA under the CFAP program (Coronavirus Food Assistance Program). Here is a little background information on how we arrived at where we are at today.  COVID-19 has changed the American and global consumers’ buying habits. The pandemic has also impacted the work force required to process our food, and workers need to get food products on the table.

CFAP stands for Coronavirus Food Assistance Program. It was one of the first programs to be initiated by the United States Government to help the American farmer. Once the pandemic arrived, lawmakers were almost instantly aware that domestic agriculture was on a slippery slope. They recognized that farmers, who had already been under a severe financial strain for the last several years, were going to get hit doubly hard with the arrival of COVID-19. The first commodities to be included were livestock, dairy and grain. Livestock and dairy were in immediate need of assistance due to a radical shift in the food chain, and supplies of dairy products and meat were backing up in the system. Grain farmers have been subjected to declining markets since 2015. The pandemic along with other world events, such as  African Swine Fever and trade tariffs have brought commodity prices to near record lows. Similar patterns occurred with many fruit and vegetable crops due to shifting market demand, inability to harvest, and untimely delivery constraints. Unfortunately, maple was excluded from the long list of specialty crops up until just a few days ago.

Maple has never been as susceptible as other crops to severe financial setbacks and wild cyclical price swings. Maple producers do an excellent job of marketing and for the most part there has not been a severe downtrend in maple syrup prices. The biggest factor impacting maple producers was that the timing of the pandemic hit U.S. soil at the exact same time that a new year’s crop was coming off the evaporators. Maple is somewhat unique in that it has a long shelf life and is produced in a relatively small region. No one knew in late March what impact the coronavirus would have on maple prices. It took 4 months of declining bulk and retail prices for the USDA to realize that maple was suffering a setback due to COVID-19. Certainly, no one was initially aware that COVID-19 would close festivals, fairs, and farmer’s markets across the country, but that was a huge blow to many sugar makers as well. Shuttered small businesses may have dealt the largest blow to the maple industry due to the sheer volume and distribution of specialty stores that handle local maple products. The second round of eligible CFAP payees again neglected maple producers, and legislators from major maple-producing states started to grow more vocal over the oversight.

Finally just last week, maple sap was included in the CFAP commodity list. The term maple sap may seem a little odd but that is what USDA has always referred to maple syrup with this product label. Maple is not a new commodity to USDA, and it has always been in their list of specialty crops. Other crops in that category include grapes, hay, and more. Specialty crops can initiate a Non-insured Crop Disaster Assistance Program (NAP) payment when there is a natural disaster and a crop is severely impacted.

Now that maple has finally been added to the list of eligible crops for CFAP, producers must act fast to receive a payment. FSA (Farm Service Agency) offices will start taking applications on Aug 17, 2020. The deadline was originally August 28 but it has been extended until September 11, 2020. CFAP is open to all maple producers in all producing states, and any maple producer is eligible even if you have not requested the services of FSA before. If you have never worked with FSA, it is suggested that you make an appointment with your local FSA office to help fill out the application. There are several additional forms you will need to sign. Applications are also available online. Unless maple producers also raise other program crops, they will probably want to arrange a visit with their local FSA office for assistance.

Finally, USDA will also offer a webinar with recent CFAP updates for specialty crop producers on August 19 at 3 PM.

Author: Les Ober, Geauga County OSU Extension

The 2020 Ohio Maple Syrup Production Report

Ohio producers enjoyed an almost “normal” season with the exception that everything happened a month early. This year’s long-term winter weather forecast was predicted to be a long, cold, and snowy winter. In the Northeast, that pattern prevailed due to a shift in the jet stream, but Ohio, West Virginia, Indiana, and parts of Pennsylvania were left with a rather mild winter. For the producers who were ready, conditions opened the door for some very good early maple syrup production in February. But the month of March saw an early warming trend that quickly brought the maple syrup season to an early conclusion across the region. Production across the state was all but shutdown by Saint Patrick’s Day. Looking at my records over the last several decades, Saint Patty’s day is circled in red because of the excellent runs occurring on or near that date – not this year. After several years where late tapping resulted in poor seasons, I feel that more producers across the Southern Tier of maple-producing states have learned to adjust their tapping to the weather and not the calendar. Thankfully, many sugarmakers I have talked with tapped at the right time in 2020 and had a very good to excellent season’s production.

Examples of this excellent production can be found across the state of Ohio. James Miller at Sugar Valley Farm set 3200 taps in January and over the 4th and 5th of February he collected over 14,000 gallons of sap. He set a personal best of 332 gallons of syrup. This pattern continued until the first week of March when the flow of sap stopped. Hit with an abnormally dry and warm period that lasted the rest of March, most trees dried up within a week. With the early start and despite the early shutdown, James ended the season with over a half gallon of syrup per tap. This was also the case for his neighbor The Gingerich Family. OMPA President Karl Evens reported a normal crop despite low sap sugar content. Down state producers reported excellent maple producing weather in the month of February. In Central Ohio’s Knox County, the Brown Family at Bonhomie Acres reported a near record crop. Further to the south in Mount Vernon, the Butcher Family set new production records after several years with below average production. Reports coming out of the southern parts of the state report excellent production, color, and flavor. A large percentage of the syrup made from south to north graded Golden and Amber. The flavor of first boils was superb, and low sap sugar content (between 1.3 and 1.6%) did not hamper production like it did back in 2018.

What can we learn from the 2020 season? First and foremost, weather forecasting is an exact science with a lot of room for error. The 2019-20 winter forecast for Ohio was about as far off as you can get; however, for many parts of the Northeast predictions were spot on. Probably the single most valuable tool a producer has to work with is experience. After years of experience making syrup, you just develop a feeling, almost a sixth sense when it is time to tap. The worst thing you can do is to second guess yourself. Wait too long and you can miss crucial runs. Tap too early and you may be headed for an early shutdown with a lot of season left. For sure, once you tapped there is no turning back and you must make the best of it. From that point to the end of the season, how you utilize modern maple technology will determine your level of success. Technology has become the great equalizer when it comes to maple syrup production in the 21st century.

Just as the maple syrup season was ending, COVID-19 cast an ominous shadow across the Buckeye State and the rest of the nation with huge disruptions to the economy. Agricultural sales, and certainly maple, were not immune. Many of the traditional points of sale, such as retail establishments, festivals, and farmers markets, were closed until further notice. Even though maple syrup was disappearing from the shelves of large grocery stores, giving the false appearance of a maple syrup shortage, nothing could be further from the truth. For small to medium size producers, it is a major challenge – near impossible in many cases – to tap into the mega supply chains. Many producers are worried that there will not be a market for their 2020 syrup crop. Hopefully as summer approaches, health regulations will be relaxed and maple producers will once again be able to market their products in traditional venues. Until then stay safe.

Author: Les Ober, Geauga County OSU Extension

Marketing What You Produce In Difficult Times

Well this has turned out to be quite a week! We knew it was going to be special with time change, a full moon, and Friday the 13th all rolled into one week. However, no one was expecting the coronavirus to descend upon us with the force of a Sherman tank. COVID-19 has shut down the world as we know it and it will make life difficult for some time into the future. Ohio’s maple season is ending, and the timing of the COVID-19 virus outbreak could not have come at a worse time for sugar makers with a full supply of maple syrup to market.

Right now, here are few things to think about if you depend on end-of-the-maple-season events to move a major portion of your crop. With the governor closing public events of 100 or more people, festivals, pancake breakfasts, and tours will all be impacted. This weekend, the Ohio Maple Tours are still proceeding but there have been several stops removed from the schedule. If you are on the Ohio Tour and you plan to be open, make sure that you know which stops are closed and inform your visitors. The worst thing for tour PR is to have people show up and only have half of the producers participating. Spread the word about closures. You should be getting this information from whatever associations are planning the tour. The end result will almost certainly be reduced traffic and sales. You need to plan to market in alternate venues later in the season.

While I have not heard yet, I expect many of the pancake breakfasts across the state may be cancelled. If so, that is a lot of maple syrup that will not be used. If you are one of the producers supplying syrup, work with the folks that are planning the event. Most of these events are major fundraisers for the organization that is sponsoring the breakfast. Remember they did not want this to happen. If they cut their syrup orders, be very understanding and work with them. We have no idea how long this COVID-19 outbreak will last. That means that forthcoming festivals and maple weekends may be impacted. Hopefully this will not last into the spring farmer’s market season, but it may. If it does, this raises a whole new level of concern.

Many people who visit farmer’s markets on a regular basis may be discouraged to attend for health reasons. Also, early season markets are often indoors or in sheltered areas. If you work these events you need to be aware of the potential health risks to you, your family, and your employees. One possible way to get around the problem is to use the Internet to market your product. Many vendors keep good records and have contact information for their customers. You can contact them by email or phone and set up delivery of maple products. If you sell a variety of products throughout the year, you might want to join a CSA, short for Community Supported Agriculture. CSAs are a great marketing tool for one or several producers working in a group to sell a variety of locally grown products to customers. Customers sign a contract to pick up a basket or box of local products every week for one flat price. It is a great way to introduce new and different value-added maple products to your customers.

Please be aware that this article was not written in a state of panic. It is written to get you thinking outside the box when it comes to marketing your maple products.

Author: Les Ober, Geauga County OSU Extension

Handling Sap and Syrup During the Season

The maple season is now underway and this is a good time to talk about handling your sap during and after collection. How you handle your sap prior to boiling will strongly affect the quality of the syrup you make. When quality syrup is the goal, timing is everything, and the clock starts as soon as the sap leaves the tree and doesn’t stop until it hits the evaporator.

When sap comes from the tree, it is sterile. That all changes once the sap starts to drain from the taphole. The air and surfaces surrounding the tap contain an abundance of microbes. The sap supplies the food source and a media for the microbes to grow and multiply. Research at Center Acer in Quebec found 21 different strains of microbes present in sap. At first you would think that could be problematic, but the reality is, you need certain strains of bacteria to produce the color and flavor that is unique to maple syrup. For microbial growth you also need the right temperature. Once the environment warms the sap, microbes multiply rapidly. Producers can monitor the potential for microbial growth by checking the temperature of sap. If the temperature is close to freezing, growth is suppressed. Below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, the growth of bacteria is slow, but once the temperature rises above 50 Fahrenheit microbial growth is rapid. The chances for 50 degrees and above temperatures are greatest at the end of the season.

When sap leaves the tree, the sugar is 100% sucrose. Once the sap is exposed to bacterial action, a small fraction of the sucrose is converted into glucose and fructose, often referred to as “invert sugars.” When maple sap containing sucrose, glucose, and fructose is heated, you create an amber color and a unique maple flavor. The problem is when undesirable bacteria begins to outnumber the good bacteria. This changes the chemistry of the sap. As the invert sugar level increases, syrup begins to take on a darker color and a stronger maple flavor. This produces the different grades of syrup. Syrup early in the season has a light color and very mild flavor. The maple syrup produced at the end of the season is often darker and stronger flavor. Syrup containing higher levels of bacteria can develop a very strong almost bitter off-taste known as sour syrup. The syrup consistency takes on a thick almost rubber like appearance and is often referred to as ropey syrup. Sour sap is often confused with buddy syrup because it happens most often at the end of the season. Buddy syrup is caused by sap coming from trees where the buds are getting ready to bloom. The chemistry is completely different from sour sap. Sour sap can happen any time during the season when a warm spell causes extreme flushes of bacteria growth. Sour sap can be prevented with good sanitation practices. Buddy syrup is a natural occurrence every year at the end of the season.

The quality of syrup produced from buckets and bags is best early in the season. Once the hole is drilled and the spout is exposed to the air, microbial development and taphole healing begins. Your season has begun, and you are now on the clock. A normal season for a bucket, bag or gravity tubing producer is 4 to 6 weeks. During the cold periods early in the season, the sap stays fresh just like it would if you put it in your refrigerator. Keep your sap below 40 degrees Fahrenheit and you are fine, but let it heat up to over 50 degrees and you asking for trouble. That happens readily at the end of the season. What many producers forget is that the bucket is an incubator for bacteria if it is not cleaned out regularly throughout the season. Leaving sap sit in a dirty bucket for any length of time is a problem. Remember bacteria does not grow in a clean dry bucket. If you are in a warm spell wash out your buckets and place them upside down next to the tree. If you are in a extended cold period, you should collect your buckets and let them hang until the next run. And never let stale sap sit a bucket, hot or cold.

As for tubing, we have discussed tubing sanitation multiple times over the years and those articles are in the Ohio Maple Blog Archive. Keep your lines as clean as possible throughout the season. This is difficult unless you are on continuous high vacuum. I know it sounds expensive to run the pumps 24/7, but it works to your advantage by keeping the lines cool and dry when the sap is not running. Another essential is to follow the tubing sanitation guidelines, installing new spouts every year, and new tees and drops every three years. You will improve the quality of your syrup.

Once you get the sap to sugarhouse, there are additional things you can do to improve quality. Sap that is going to be stored for longer periods of time needs to be stored in a stainless steel tank. Avoid poly tanks for sap storage. Plastic tanks are incubators for bacteria. Older galvanized tanks, like galvanized buckets, need to be discarded because of the risk of lead contamination. For the backyard producer, make sure your tank is in the shade. Pack around it with snow if possible. You can even freeze some sap and put it in the tank during warm spells. What ever it takes to keep your sap cold, take those necessary precautions. Anytime your sap reaches 50 degrees Fahrenheit and you can’t immediately cool it back down, boil immediately.

What about the evaporator? Boil your sap as quickly as possible. If you are using a reverse osmosis machine, make sure you do not let your concentrate sit. Boil it as soon as it comes through the RO. You double, triple, and in some cases, quadruple the sugar concentration in your sap, and bacteria builds fast in concentrated sap. If you are using a small evaporator, it is a good idea to drain and flush your rig. Leaving partially boiled sap on an evaporator in a warm sugarhouse can result in ropey syrup. Once the syrup is filtered get it into a barrel or a container as fast you can. Do not let it sit around. Pack your drums hot and do not open them until you are ready to use them. Do not store syrup drums in a warm building. Move them into the basement where it is cool or package the syrup at 185 degrees Fahrenheit shortly after the season. From the tree to final container, paying attention to details pays big dividends.

Author: Les Ober, Geauga County OSU Extension

A Summary of Ohio Maple Syrup Production in 2019

Every June I always look forward to giving the annual maple production summary for Ohio. This has always been in conjunction with USDA’s release of the NASS annual maple syrup report. There has been much discussion over the years about the accuracy of the NASS report. Good or bad it always gave us some idea of how Ohio production compared to the rest of the maple world. This year, a decision by the USDA came down from Washington to remove Ohio and four other states from the survey. Ohio maple syrup production will not be included in the annual USDA NASS maple syrup production report nor will it be included in future surveys for the foreseeable future. As a result, I will do my best to present a guesstimate of Ohio production for 2019.

The 2019 maple season in Ohio was a complete turnaround from the 2018 season. It was a traditional, almost old-fashioned type of season. There was very little talk of climate change, no abnormal spikes in temperature followed by predictions of an early end to the season. The early tappers were out right after the first of the year but a couple of late January-early February polar air blasts tempered their enthusiasm. As the season progressed, more normal cold weather returned. That weather pattern extended through most of February and the majority of producers waited until mid-February to tap. (This was much different from the 2018 season when thermometers topped 74 degrees Fahrenheit on February 24.) The cold returned during the last week of February and ran into the first week of March, but March 7th kicked off a series of runs that extended through Saint Patrick’s Day and beyond. Syrup production was almost non-stop for 20 days. Records were set on many farms, and for the most part, no one called this a poor season. The extended cold weather and snow kept the season going into the first week of April. The cold weather was also responsible for better than normal sap quality. Many producers produced one half gallon of syrup per tap. The only negative in 2019 was niter. Producers seemed to fight a slightly above normal amount of the gummy slime.

Ohio Producers found out last year that when the sap sugar content drops, so too does syrup yield. Unlike last year when we experienced abnormally low sugar content of 1 to 1.5 percent, this year’s sap sugar was normal to a little above normal in the 2% to 2.4% range. Even the soft maples were close to 2%. Sap quality was excellent. The cold weather kept microbial growth to a minimum maintaining high standards of sap quality throughout the season. Good quality sap translates into good quality syrup. This was the story across most of Ohio. Producers in the northeastern portion of the state produced large quantities of Delicate and Amber Syrup. Central Ohio produced the lighter grades early on but also produced some great tasting Dark Robust later in the season. Southern Ohio, producers tapped in late January and early February and extended their season into the third week of March. The southern part of Ohio may have also produced a larger percentage of the darker grades. It is refreshing to sit here and report a good season for a change, but this story has both a good news and bad news side. To sum up the season, this was a very good year for Ohio maple syrup production. Using the 2018 production of 90,000 gallons as a benchmark, I would estimate 2019 production at between 100,000 gallons and 125,000 gallons.

My summary comes from numerous conversations with producers, dealers and buyers across the state. Maple equipment dealers report that their sales across the state have been on a steady rise over the last 10 years. There has also been a steady increase in the volume of syrup handled by bulk buyers in the state. The adoption rate of maple technology has been on the rise, allowing producer to double and triple the number of taps in their woods. Sugar bushes with 2000 to 4000 taps have become commonplace around the state. I can safely say that maple syrup production in Ohio, just like other maple producing states, is on the rise. Even though bulk prices have leveled off, retail prices and the demand for pure maple products is strong. As a result, I do not see this upward trend in production reversing in the near future.

Author: Les Ober, Geauga County OSU Extension

A Few Thoughts on Finishing Maple Syrup

Cold weather has set in and that has allowed me to scan the maple chat rooms. Many of the questions that keep popping up are about finishing maple syrup. Is it too thick or too thin? Should I use a thermometer, hydrometer, and/or refractometer? Here are some of my thoughts on the subject.

Most of these questions are coming from backyard producers with a relatively small number of taps. Making syrup on a flat pan or hobby rig is not an easy task. You deal with a lot more “what if’s” than you would on a big evaporator. The process is simple – build a fire under your pan and bring your sap to the boiling point of water. Use a thermometer to monitor the process. That thermometer reading will vary from day to day depending on the barometric pressure. When the temperature goes 2 degrees Fahrenheit above the boiling point of water, add more sap, preferably pre-heated sap. Continue the process until all your sap is in the pan and begins condensing down. At that point, stop boiling, take the liquid into the house to store, and finish the batch. Most hobbyists follow this procedure and it works well. The trouble starts when you have a rig that looks like a big evaporator but does not run like a big evaporator. Many hobby rigs have channels and a heater pan and that is good. Sap should come into the back channel and gradually work its way to the channel on the opposite side near the front. Higher density syrup should move ahead of the lower density syrup. The problem comes in when you have to decide how much sap to let in at any one time. It works okay as long as you can maintain a steady flow into the rig. You need to maintain a depth of 2-3 inches across the entire evaporator. Overflow the hobby rig with liquid, and you will kill the boil. Once this happens, the sap of lesser density intermingles with the heavier density syrup. Big problem! Despite the fact you have channels, you are now no better off than you would be with a flat pan. On commercial evaporators, we have a thing called a float that automatically maintains the level of sap moving across the rig. With a hobby evaporator, you are the float and maintaining the proper level takes time and experience.

A few words on syrup-testing instruments. As stated above, you absolutely must have a thermometer. Two other tools that I recommended are a hydrometer and a refractometer. The hydrometer is necessary and a refractometer is nice if it fits your budget. Others have mentioned the Murphy’s Compensation Cup. I have used one for the last three seasons, developed by Smokey Lake – the Murphy’s Cup is a very useful tool.

I have two ways of measuring density directly off the evaporator. Here is the formula I use. First, I draw a sample into a hydrometer cup once the temperature reaches 7 degrees above the boiling point of water. Remember thermometers need to be calibrated. With your hydrometer cup filled with hot syrup that is above 211 degree Fahrenheit, insert the hydrometer into the cup. When it hits the top red line, you have syrup. I check this several times. Once I have the syrup where I want it, I pour one of the samples into the Murphy Cup. This device has a dial with corresponding numbers to those on a hydrometer. You insert your hydrometer into the cup and let it settle for 3 to 5 minutes. When the reading on the dial and the hydrometer match, you are at the right density. After that, I can fine-tune my auto draw-off for subsequent runs. On the last run, we are hitting between 66.0 and 66.5 Brix with this system. Refractometers are available in digital and analog versions. The digital versions seem to be the most popular. They are very useful to check syrup prior to bottling. Do not use a refractometer at draw-off, a refractometer’s reading is only accurate on temperature-stable and filtered syrup. The only reason for us to have a refractometer in the sugarhouse is to check the sugar content of concentrate coming off your reverse osmosis unit.

Author: Les Ober, Geauga County OSU Extension

Vacuum Tubing Systems, An Update

This is an update for an article I wrote on the Ohio Maple Blog way back in 2013. It was entitled “Tubing or Pump: How to Optimize Your Tubing System’s Performance.” A lot of knowledge has been gained since that original article. In fact, a whole new type of gravity tubing system, 3/16″, has been introduced and has been overwhelmingly accepted by maple producers.

When we talk about tubing systems we have two roads to travel. One is a gravity system and the other is a vacuum system. A conventional 5/16″ gravity system is not much different from running sap into a bucket. It does save labor but the yield is much the same. But when we add vacuum to a tubing system, we can increase the sap yield 5 to 7% for every inch of vacuum we place on our system. For example, if we produce 15 inches of vacuum in our lines, we should be able to double our sap yield.

The definition of vacuum is the absence of air. The level of vacuum that is achievable is determined by the barometric pressure for any given day. This means that our vacuum level can never exceed the barometric pressure in the location of our sugar bush. There are factors that have a direct effect on barometric pressure. One is altitude. As the altitude increases the barometric pressure decreases. At sea level, 0 altitude, the average barometric press can be 29 inches and at 2000 feet the average barometric pressure is approximately 28 inches. In addition, barometric pressure changes under different environmental conditions. It can change multiple times during the course of a day. This is most important when we are boiling syrup because it changes the boiling point of water. But if we are running a vacuum pump under a low barometer at an altitude of  2000 feet, we might also struggle to maintain 27 to 28 inches of vacuum even on a very tight, well maintained tubing system. This statement also emphasizes the importance of managing leaks in a vacuum tubing system. Every leak adds additional air to the system making it harder for the vacuum pump to achieve and maintain high vacuum. The amount of air moved out of a system is measured in Cubic Feet per Minute (CFM). It is important to be able to differentiate between Inches of Vacuum and CFM. To successfully raise your vacuum level, you have to be able to remove the air from your tubing system. Once the air is removed, your vacuum level will increase unless you are letting air in through leaks.

Now let’s look at what happens inside a maple tubing line. A conventional vacuum pump is designed to move air not liquid.  This means that a vacuum pump is pulling air out of the system while the trees and the leaks are adding air into the system. A properly sized vacuum pump with a proper CFM rating will be capable of removing air faster that it is introduced. The only thing that will slow that process is line size. If your line diameter is to small, the air movement will be restricted requiring more time for the pump to clear the air from the lines. This is commonly referred to as line loss. The smaller the line, the higher the line loss and the longer it will take to re-establish your peak vacuum level. That is why tubing design and pump size are so important in a conventional vacuum system. It is also very important to note that in a vacuum system, liquid does not need to be present to create a high vacuum. The movement of sap is secondary. As the vacuum level builds it creates a siphon that pulls the sap along with the air. In fact, when we look at the space inside a cross section of tubing we should strive to maintain a ratio of 60% air and 40% liquid. If the liquid level increases or is uneven (wavy), then the air movement will be restricted and the inches of vacuum will drop.

Let’s look at some other alternatives to move sap through a tubing system. One of the more popular alternatives to conventional vacuum is the diaphragm pump. Let’s look at what happens with a diaphragm pump. Diaphragm pumps are water pumps that unlike vacuum pumps are designed to move liquid – not air. Because they move water and not air, their capability of creating CFM is minimal at best. Manufacturers tell us that these pumps are capable of creating 20 plus inches of vacuum. How do you create a vacuum with these pumps when their ability to move air measured in cubic feet per minute is limited? In a sugar bush, your lines are hopefully sloped toward your tank and gravity allows sap to flow toward the pump. Once the pump picks up the sap on the intake side, it then accelerates the flow in the line. The pump simultaneously pushes the sap under pressure through the outlet. Because the pump is pulling hard on the sap and pushing it through the outlet, it creates a solid column of sap. As this column of sap moves down the line, the air and liquid combines thereby creating a negative pressure on the backside of the column. This negative pressure can be measures with a vacuum gauge. This continues until the sap flow slows down. As the sap flow slows the vacuum level begins to drop. Once the flow is terminated, the pump can no longer push sap through the outlet, and the negative pressure will ultimately disappear. If you run the pump without liquid, you risk damaging the pump. The biggest thing to remember is that a $200.00 diaphragm pump will not remove air from the system by itself. It has to move liquid to create a negative pressure on the backside of a column of sap. I know the above statements will create controversy from those that are using diaphragm pumps successfully. There are ways to tweak a system to create increased vacuum during low flows but the ultimate end is reduced or no vacuum. The other thing to keep in mind, if you want to be successful with a diaphragm pump, is to keep your tubing system free of leaks. Leaks will result in poor pump performance. Also protect you pump from freezing and ice in the lines. Ice can damage diaphragms. Diaphragm pumps are a good choice in small operations where an increased level of vacuum during a good run is better than no vacuum at all. But diaphragm pumps were never intended to a replace a conventional vacuum system and they never will.

Author: Les Ober, Geauga County OSU Extension