2024 Maple Season Summary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ohio Maple NPR Soundbyte

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

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

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

Buckeye Teaching Evaporator: The First Boil!

Exciting developments at the Ohio State University-Mansfield campus!  We installed a teaching maple evaporator under our new pavilion near the research sugarbush and just completed our first boil last night.  This step is fairly monumental for Ohio State Maple, and there isn’t anything quite like the feeling of seeing that first draw-off.  Somehow we’ve got a grainy image of that moment last night to commemorate the experience!

First things first – a formal thank you to Roger and Suzie Gortner for continuing to do our production sap processing.  They have made exceptional maple syrup from our OSU trees for the past 5 years and will continue to be instrumental in that regard.  We literally could not do it without them, and we’re grateful that it’s an arrangement that works for both parties involved.

But now for the first time ever, we have our own evaporator.  No, it is not sized to keep up with a production woods of almost 1,200 taps, but it is perfectly sized for demonstration boils on a teaching scale.  With help from local producer Galen Smith from Mount Vernon, OH, our team set up an 18” x 66” drop flue evaporator early in winter of 2023-24.  After a test boil to dummy out a few variables (or maybe to dummy out the dummies…us!?), we put fire under sap concentrate on Wednesday, February 14th – Valentine’s Day.

Four 5/16″ lines kept sap flowing from our larger sap tank into a holding chamber that our reverse osmosis unit was drawing off.  We adjusted the PSI on our RO to almost perfectly sync and match the raw sap movement with our RO processing speed.  After some adjustments to align the 2 processes, we were taking sap from 2.1 to 4.6 Brix concentrate.  6 hours later, we were halfway there…

Eventually, we crept up to 7 degrees F over the point of boiling water.  You know what happens next.

A teaching evaporator with small-scale RO unit allows us to now teach via-demonstration tree-to-bottle workshops and seminars on an Ohio State campus, provide more complete tours for events like the upcoming Maple Madness event on Saturday, March 2nd (more on that in a second), and sets the table for a new Sustainability Theme GE course debuting in Spring of 2025 – Maple: A Sweet Taste of the Past, Present, & Future.

So yes, come visit us on Saturday, March 2nd at the OSU-Mansfield Maple Pavilion.  We are excited to host folks for pancakes and syrup between 10 AM-1 PM, tours of the sugarbush and nearby vernal pool wetlands all day long until 5 PM, and good fellowship with one another for the Ohio Maple Madness Tour.  Once you are on campus, just follow the signs!

Welcome Jake!!

We are excited to introduce Jake Nicholson, Ohio State Extension’s new Maple-Christmas Tree hire, to the Ohio State Maple site community.  This non-timber forest products position has been a long-time in the making, and we are thrilled to welcome Jake to the team.  Jake is a former student, and personally speaking, I was excited to see his name in the hat and enthusiastically supportive of his hire.  Recently, I was able to spend a couple days with Jake at the North American Maple Syrup Council in Massachusetts, and I tossed 5 questions Jake’s direction; below are his replies.

Tell us about your background.  I know you pursued a major in natural resources – what was that exactly and what drew you to that career?

My first job was working at Camp Lakota, a local scout camp back home in northwest Ohio as a staff member when I was 15.  It became such a transformative experience for me, both in helping me to grow personally and in learning how much I loved being outdoors.  From there I was hooked, I wanted to learn about conservation, preservation, management, all of it; but most importantly I wanted to share that passion with as many people as I could.

Not to get too personal, but do you a significant other?  Kiddos?  Pets?  Both?

I am recently married to my wonderful wife Maria.  We have two pets, a goofy golden retriever named Ryder and a very friendly, but judgmental gray cat named Jasper.

What excites you most about maple?

Oh, so many things, to start with I absolutely love the community I have met so far. Everyone is so welcoming and willing to share what they know; their generosity is overwhelming, and I look forward to visiting more sugar shack and bushes soon.

What your favorite talk from the North American Maple Syrup Conference in Massachusetts?

The Best Practices in the Sugarhouse practical skill workshop was my favorite talk. As wonderful as all the talks I attended were, most focused on the big picture of sugarbush management. Glenn Goodrich did an amazing job of presenting actionable advice to make the best syrup possible once the sap is in the sugarhouse.

If there is one thing you want maple producers to know about you, what would it be?

As steeped in tradition as this industry is, it must be strange to have someone in my position who was not brought up within it. I want to assure all the maple producers of Ohio, big and small, that I am determined to get up to speed with the realities of modern sugaring. I am already taking steps to do that and am incredibly grateful for the way that so many of you have opened your sugar shacks to me and taught me about how you do what you do. I look forward to many more visits in the future and creating programs and resources to promote this industry to future generations.

Now that you’ve gotten to know him here, go out of your way to introduce yourself at Ohio Maple Days on December 8th and 9th up in Ashland.  If you still need to register, visit the link for Saturday’s main event and Friday night’s banquet social organized by the Ohio Maple Producers Association.  Friday’s confections workshop is already sold out and at capacity, but keep your eyes open for additional offerings on that topic in the future.

Welcome Jake!!

2023 Syrup is Going, Going, Almost Gone…

We are so thankful for our loyal base of Ohio State maple syrup fans.  In fact, our repeat customers do such a good job of cleaning out each new inventory release, that there is very little leftover to share with potential new customers.  This year, 80% of our released stock sold within 2 weeks including every single one of our special 5-year commemorative glass etched bottles.

We do have some OSU maple syrup left.  If you are interested, please visit the OSU Maple Store through the Woodland Stewards website and purchase quarts for pick-up (either on Columbus or Mansfield campus) or doorstep delivery.  Time is of the essence as we are down to just 75 or so jugs remaining.  The proceeds from syrup continue to support excellent hands-on, field-based student internships in the sugarbush and in the broader Ecolab at Ohio State Mansfield.  Thanks!

WV Maple Event Opportunity

Southern Ohioans have a great opportunity to slide across the Ohio River to join a wonderful maple event scheduled for October 14th in Wayne, West Virginia.  Just across the water from Lawrence County, OH, our partners at Future Generations University and West Virginia University are putting on a workshop titled “Forest Management for Sap Production: Why You Should ‘Think Maple’ .”

Lunch is provided and the workshop goes from 9:00 AM to 4:30 PM and features sugarhouse and sugarbush tours at Tom’s Creek Maple.

Specific talk sessions are as follows:

  • Managing for sap production / Managing for timber production / or both!!
  • Sap collection systems
  • Managing a woodlot for sap production (hands-on and forestry tech talk heavy)
  • Integrating other forest farming activities into your sugaring operation
  • Forest health threats to maple
  • Technical resources through the OH/WV Maple Toolbox

Slots can be reserved by emailing syrup@future.edu.  Don’t miss out on a great learning opportunity to learn from syrupmakers in the far southern tier of what Ohio producers can expect to encounter in maple sugaring.

More Benefits of Maple: Monthly Maple REVIEW

September’s REVIEW piece bangs the same exact drum as our August post.  Put simply, the benefits of maple syrup are VAST, and this article by Faez Mohammed and team expand the discussion beyond nutritional to also include pharmacological and sensory attributes.  how do big trees make baby trees and what factors promote or inhibit that process.  In case you are interested in reading the full article which was published just over a month ago, “Nutritional, pharmacological, and sensory properties of maple syrup: A comprehensive review” is available here.

While this article is not presenting new research, the authors are doing the hard work of sampling the existing literature and drawing together a synthetic summary of what many many others have discovered in the past.  95 total research articles factor into this particular review.  Here are some interesting facts and tidbits that I found interesting as I read through the paper.

1) A major reason that maple syrup has a long list of nutritional benefits and something like white granulated sugar has a long list of known negative impacts is that maple syrup is NOT processed by humans as a refined sugar, instead maple syrup is processed as a source of carbohydrates.

2) Maple syrup is often compared to other natural sweetener alternatives.  Maple syrup contains 60.5 grams sugar per 100 total g.  This is less sugar than honey (68 g), molasses (74.7 g), and of course high fructose corn syrup (75.7 g).

3) When we say something is an antioxidant, we are referring to a substance that reduces free radicals that are loose like a “bull in the china shop” wreaking havoc on cells and cell membranes.  For something to arrest and capture free radicals is to possess antioxidant properties.  Maple syrup is known to have antioxidant properties that come primarily from 2 types of compounds.  Without getting overly technical and going into specifics, early season syrup has anti-oxidizing properties due to 1 set of compounds, and syrup made from sap harvested from the second half of the season relies on a different type of compound to chase down and capture free radicals.  That is cool!!

4) When we say something has antiproliferative properties, we are referring to a substance that keep cancer cells from multiplying quickly and without impediment.  It turns out maple syrup has these properties too!  But some maple syrup is better at slowing the growth rates of cancer cells than others.  Past research has found darker color maple syrup has a greater ability to slow harmful cell production than lighter grades of syrup.  Certain phenolic compounds register higher in darker colored syrup, and it is believed these substances are the active agents at play in antiproliferative defenses.

5) If you can get your hands on this article, it is absolutely a great resource.  I could list a number of additional points that reflect the general tenor of #3 and #4, but suffice it to say this post would grow real long real fast.  Again, here is a link to the abstract and research article in full.

I want wrap up this REVIEW by focusing on a small subsection within the larger article titled “Effect of maple syrup production processes on its nutritional value and component bioactivity.”  In other words, what should the maple syrup production process look like to enhance and bolster the nutritional and medical benefits of finished maple syrup product?  Here are a couple quick takeaways in closing.  Antimutagenic (preserving DNA integrity) properties seem to be highest in the earliest lightest color syrup made in the season.  Darker syrup grades are better equipped to fight cancer cells.  Drying syrup (making some value-added products) reduces total phenolic content (the agents responsible for antiproliferative defense) and antioxidant capacities.  This is my own two cents, but I get the growing sense that investigating the intricate and minute details of maple syrup in terms of its chemical structure, molecular compounds, and different properties, traits, and characteristics is like a medical explorer penetrating the deepest and darkest most remote corners of the tropics where previously undiscovered plant species may hold the spark to the next game-changing pharmacological revolution.  Remarkable stuff!!

 

 

Maple Nutrition: Maple Monthly REVIEW

You might have spent some of the last month or so under a rock if you have not caught at least a glimpse of month’s REVIEW article, actually presentation.  Much ado has been made of the research presented at the 2023 American Society for Nutrition conference, “Substituting refined sugars with maple syrup decreases key cardiometabolic risk factors in individuals with mild metabolic alterations, a randomized, double-blind, controlled crossover trial.”  The hubbub surrounding the research has landed the work across major news outlets, morning talk shows, health blogs and podcasts, and of course, the Maple Syrup Digest.

Do some searches for Dr. Andre Marette and Dr. Marie-Claude Vohl’s recent research trial or open the latest issue of the Maple Syrup Digest, and you will have tons of information at your fingertips.  Here’s the skinny on the research.  You or I would recognize the study participants as normal-looking, average Americans – not fitness models, but certainly not too unhealthy either.  Everybody in the trial participated in both sides of the experiment, but participants did not know when they participated in each half.  The beauty of this design is that each participant serves as his or her own control for optimal comparability.  In one half of the experiment, participants supplemented their daily nutrition intake with a flavored sucrose syrup, and then participants flip-flopped to consuming a couple tablespoons of the real McCoy – maple syrup.

Here are the key takeaways put as simply as possible:

1) Maple syrup helped participants manage their blood sugar levels, which has obvious implications for diabetes-related risk.

2) Maple syrup consumers had a lower blood pressure, which reduces risk for cardiovascular disease.

3) Maple syrup slowed the accumulation of android fat, a double whammy health benefit.

In short, this new research trial is some of the clearest and most irrefutable evidence for maple syrup health benefits yet!  In a more wordy paragraph and excerpted from a 2022 review paper on maple syrup, here’s a great synopsis of the health benefits of maple.

Of the many natural sweeteners, maple syrup is recognized as a much superior alternative to refined sugar for not only its mineral content, but also for its high concentration of phenolic compounds with bioactivity properties, i.e., anti-mutagenic, anti-radical, antioxidant, and anti-cancer.  Compared to dextrose, corn syrup and brown rice syrup, maple syrup brings about lower glucose and insulin responses, which make it a healthier substitute for refined sugars in our diet.

Memorize that block quote to recite next time a potential customer is waffling at whether or not to pony up some hard-earned cash for your delicious maple syrup.

Upcoming Maple Events

Working from long-range calendar planning to close-range events, we are excited about the upcoming slew of maple events.  There is literally something for everybody!

Join us for the 2023 Ohio Maple Days in Ashland, Ohio, December 8th and 9th for 2 days of instructional workshops, food and fellowship, and a Saturday full of technical talks for both advanced sugarmakers and beginners.  We kick things off at 1 PM on Friday with a value-added workshop that will teach participants how to make maple sugar, maple cream, maple candy, maple cotton candy, and even some maple-infused breakfast sausage links.  The Ohio Maple Producers Association is hosting a maple contest with banquet blowout Friday night with the full conference agenda on Saturday.  During Saturday afternoon, we are excited to offer a beginner’s track to explore the basics of maple and an advanced track that will focus on sugarhouse design, marking your woods for a crop tree release timber harvest, and more.  And by popular demand, we are bringing back hydrometer testing – so please mark your calendars for December 8th and 9th.  We will post the registration details as soon as they go live.

Lake Erie Maple Expo is slated for November 10-11 in Albion, PA.  This popular event has an excellent list of sessions and speakers on tap for participants.  I for one have never been in attendance but will be changing that this year.  I hope to see a few familiar faces there!

The week prior to LEME on November 3rd and 4th, the Ohio Maple Producers will be hosting their annual meeting – stay tuned or check their website for details!

Sturbridge, Massachusetts, will be the hosting location for this year’s North American Maple Conference from October 25-28.  This is the BIG show with an absolutely packed slate of tours, meetings, technical workshops, and great meals.  You can find registration details here.  If that’s not enough for you, the International Maple Grading School will be offered October 29th and 30th just down the road in Grafton, MA.

A bit more local, we are excited to be offering a tandem webinar/workshop in collaboration with the University of Kentucky.  The webinar – evening of September 11th –  will be a basic introduction to all things maple in order to whet new producers’ appetites and lure them out to the in-person event in Boone County, KY, on Monday, October 16th.

Sandwiched in between those 2 events, please consider joining us down in southwestern Ohio Saturday, September 16th for a workshop in partnership with the Cincinnati Zoo.  Registration details are live on the Ohio Woodland Stewards Program website.  In conjunction with the workshop, participants will have a chance to shop and browse at the Zoo’s Native Plant Nursery there on site at Bowyer Farm.

And last but not least, Pennsylvania is hosting Maple Boot Camp on September 6th-8 prefaced by a Maple Grading Workshop the morning of that Wednesday.  Boot Camp is the brain child of the 3-state OH/PA/WV, and it is the Keystone State’s turn to host.  We are excited about this in-depth, deep dive into maple sugaring and hope to repeat the success of last year’s Boot Camp in Ohio.

I’ll be sprinkling reminders here and there as different registration deadlines loom, but I hope to cross paths with you at least once, if not multiple times, throughout the fall maple programming season.  Lots of options to choose from!!

Maple Cost-Share Assistance – NRCS EQIP Program

Special thanks to Keith Libben & Timothy Fulks for writing this article for the OSU Maple site!

The USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) has long been a well-known resource for agricultural producers in Ohio, especially with our livestock producers and our crop farmers.  Their Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) is the flagship conservation program for NRCS and has provided millions of dollars in incentives to producers over the years to address resource concerns that negatively impact soil, water, air, and animal health.

EQIP works by providing farmers, ranchers, and forest owners financial incentives to install conservation practices that help address resource concerns.  Common practices funded include cover crops, manure storage systems, and nutrient management planning.  But did you know that EQIP can now assist Ohio’s maple syrup producers?  Recent changes to the practices available in Ohio intended to improve air quality can now provide some assistance in the sugar shack.  The practices available are intended to improve air quality by improving efficiency in the sugar shack and in turn reducing emissions from burning fossil fuels or wood.  Practices that are currently eligible include reverse osmosis systems, sap pre-heaters, and improved efficiency evaporators.

Interested in getting some financial assistance to make some upgrades at the sugar shack?  This is the general process:

  • Producers need to reach out to their local NRCS field office or Soil and Water Conservation District and get an application in for EQIP.
  • From there, NRCS will coordinate with you to set up a time to visit your sugar bush and assess your operation. Other professionals may be necessary to determine what practices may be appropriate for your operation.
  • NRCS will use this information to develop a conservation plan and cost share estimate. Once this is complete, your application will be submitted for ranking and consideration for funding.
  • NRCS will reach out to you if your application has been selected for funding. Now the ball is in  your court to decide if you want to sign a contract for the funding assistance.  If you sign the contract, you agree to install the required practices per all relevant NRCS standards and specifications.
  • Once installation of the practices is complete and verified, you’ll receive your contracted financial incentive.

It is important to not think of EQIP as solely a coupon to get a steep discount for a new evaporator or reverse osmosis unit.  Such narrow thinking will probably not result in a competitive conservation plan.  Rather, leverage EQIP to design a more holistic approach to improving your overall property.  Additional woodland, wildlife, or cropland practices can also be applied to increase your plan’s ranking score and up the odds of being successful.  Talk to your local NRCS office today to see how they may be able to help!

Additional Questions:

How much cost-assistance will I receive?  NRCS re-evaluates costs of implementing practices on a yearly basis.  For most successful applicants, they will receive their contracted payment of 75% of the projected cost upon completion.  For historically underserved applicants, the cost share rate is set to 90%.

What are the maple-specific EQIP practice codes?  Practice 228 Agricultural Energy Assessment and Practice 374 Energy Efficient Agricultural Operation are the codes that can be leveraged for evaporators, sap preheaters, and reverse osmosis units.

When do I need to get my EQIP application submitted?  NRCS accepts new applications on a continual basis, meaning there is no true deadline.  However, submitted applications do join a stack of documents for the next ranking session which typically occurs in late fall.

 

Remember to join us on Saturday, December 9th for the 2023 Ohio Maple Days.  One of our featured afternoon speakers this year will discuss EQIP’s cost-share opportunities for maple producers in detail.  Registration should go live in late July-early August.