Join OSU’s Les Ober, Geauga Co. Extension, and SENR’s Gabe Karns and Kathy Smith, for this session on how to make your own syrup or explore turning your woods into a sugarbush as an income opportunity. We will talk some history, tree species to tap, how to tap and how to boil and bottle maple sap. Have a few trees in the yard or a woods that has potential? We will try to answer all your questions.
The Ohio Maple Madness Spring Tour is scheduled for March 6th & 7th and March 13th & 14th. The bookended Saturdays / Sundays event will be similar to the fall tour. Whatever COVID-19 protocols are issued by our governor at that time will be in place for the Spring Tour.
Anyone interested in joining the 2021 Ohio Maple Madness tour should reach out to Fred or Jen at Richards Maple ASAP. Fred’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org and Jen’s is email@example.com. You can also call Fred Ahrens 330-206-1606 to get more information and lock in your spot on the tour.
More information will be going out to OMPA members and the event will be advertised across an array of websites and social media outlets. The deadline to be listed in the printed advertisements has already passed, but there is still time to join the Tour and be listed in digital ads. The fee is $90 per stop. The cost includes OMPA membership/benefits for a year, covers IMSI/NAMSC dues for a year, and makes sure your maple operation is a part of this year’s 2021 Maple Madness Tour!
If know that you want to participate in this spring’s Maple Madness tour, reach out ASAP to Fred or Jen and have your bio, open hours, address, and any new maple recipes ready to send to the following address:
Ohio Maple Madness Tour
545 Water Street
Chardon, OH 44024
Maple syrup from The Ohio State University-Mansfield campus is available for purchase. Produced from sap of the research and demonstration sugarbush, the maple syrup is bottled in 1/2 pint (glass bottles), pint, quart, and half gallon containers (rest are jugs). As an extra bonus, the 2020 run of syrup, which is currently available, carries the 150th sesquicentennial logo for OSU’s important anniversary.
Importantly, OSU syrup sale proceeds contribute to maintenance of the sugarbush, seed money for research, funding maple-related student internships and research opportunities, and more. To place an order, visit Ohio State’s Woodland Stewards website. We can ship syrup to your door or you can request a pick-up in Columbus or in Mansfield.
For those already shopping for holiday gifts, a case of 20, 1/2 pint glass bottles is available at a good discount. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for discount details.
Click on the Mansfield Maple tab for more information about the sugarbush at OSU-Mansfield!
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.
2018 was better than the abysmal years of 2016 and 2017, and Ohio production was reported (USDA NASS survey) at 90,000 gallons – good enough for the 8th best state in the nation. Let’s take a deeper dive into the report and see what else we can learn.
In both 2016 (70,000 gallons) and 2017 (80,000), warm short seasons plagued Ohio. Most producers I talked to did not have a great year in 2018, but they at least were more respectable. Respectability comes in the form of a paltry 10,000-gallon increase in production. I know of five producers in NE Ohio that could have accounted for those 10,000 gallons. Now let us look at the number of taps. It remained the same as 2017, 400,000 taps for the entire state of Ohio. The only believable statistic is the yield per tap of 0.225 resulting from the low sugar content in the sap. Let us compare how neighboring states did. Pennsylvania produced 142,000 gallons, and Michigan produced 125,000 gallons. That has to be a tough pill to swallow for any Buckeye supporter. The big winner, no surprise – Vermont, cranked out 1,940,000 gallons. New York overcame a lot of cold weather to produce their new high mark of 806,000 gallons, and Maine produced 539,000 gallons, down from 709,000 in 2017, but they experienced a deep freeze late in the season.
If my remarks seem somewhat caustic, I apologize. Yes, you can blame it on the weather or you can blame it on apathy on the part of the producers in their reporting. Unfortunately, it has become a well-known fact that Ohio maple producers do not want to report their production. In addition, it could be the reporting system is partially to blame. Let’s face it, with a large portion of the syrup being produced in the Amish community, and a reporting system that depends more and more on digital technology, there may be a problem. I back this up with the fact that only 400,000 taps were reported, and if that is the case, the number of taps in Ohio has literally stood stagnant for almost ten years. No expansion in Ohio! I flat out do not believe this to be the case. I cannot prove it but I think there are 400,000 taps in northeast Ohio alone.
So why is reporting important and am I justified in my frustrations? If you believe what is reported and you are a maple producer, you are now involved in a stagnant agricultural industry that is going nowhere fast. Whether you the producer believes it or not, that fact does not matter. It is what the local and state governments believe that counts. It is what The Ohio State University, the state’s premier land grant institution, believes that counts. Right now House Bill 66 sits in front of the state legislature. If the bill passes and is signed into law, maple producers would receive a significant reduction in their land taxes. At the very least, the bill’s consideration may change the way counties look at CAUV (Current Agricultural Use Value) for maple producing landowners. In addition, OSU’s College of Food Agriculture and Environmental Sciences is being asked by the Ohio Maple Producers Association to employ additional staff to work with maple producers. Do you think the 2018 USDA NASS report is incentive to act on that request? More than anything else, what kind of message are we sending to Ohio consumers? If all they hear is the negative news of a stagnant industry, will they believe that we have a good supply of maple syrup in Ohio or will they resort to buying Vermont maple syrup off the grocery shelves? It is time that we look at how we measure the value of the Ohio maple syrup industry to Ohio’s overall agricultural economy. As producers, we owe it to ourselves to see that the majority of the syrup we produce goes in the accounting book. The future of the Ohio maple syrup industry may depend on it.
2017 production results were published in the USDA NASS survey on June 9th. For Ohio, the numbers were an improvement over 2016 but only marginally. Ohio produced 80,000 gallons, a slight improvement over the 70,000 gallons produced last year. Once again, 75% of the producing states improved their production, and for many, it was a major improvement. New York and Maine each added close to 50,000 gallons over last year’s production. The nation’s leading producer of maple syrup – Vermont – again finished right below 2 million gallons. Vermont is in no danger of losing its crown. Finishing out the top 5 were New York (760,000 gallons), Maine (709,000), Wisconsin (200,000) and New Hampshire (154,000). Ohio continues to slide in its ranking to a disappointing 9th place. However, Ohio producers did increase production over 2016 by 10,000 gallons due to an early start. The earliest start date in Ohio was January 1, 2017, 25 days earlier than 2016. The problem is that when you look at the average start date across the state it was February 11th. That was a problem given the mild weather conditions we experienced in January, and you will also remember we set all-time record highs on February 24th with a balmy 77 degrees Fahrenheit. Ohio’s season ended early around March 16th. Syrup per tap, a measurement where Ohio was once a leader, dropped to 0.20 gallons per tap – a second subpar year in a row for the Buckeye State. By comparison, Vermont recorded their earliest start, also on January 1, with their average starting date February 24th, but had almost an extra 3 weeks of production on average with an average closing date of April 10. Both New York and Maine experienced similar scenarios.
One final statistic that has shown a modest improvement over last year, but is still below 2015, is the number of taps reported for Ohio – 400,000 taps in 2017. For anyone working closely with the Ohio maple industry this statistic is mind boggling given that expansion has occurred in sugar bushes across the state for the last 5 years. The only explanation for this is that a large portion of the syrup being produced in Ohio is going unreported. Another statistic that tends to cast suspicion on the validity of Ohio’s maple production statistics is how Ohio producers choose to market their syrup. In 2015, 44% of Ohio producers sold to the retail market. That number dropped to 30% in 2016. At the same time the bulk sales market expanded from 32% in 2015 to 43% in 2016 (Note: these numbers are always one year behind the current year). Examining market trends of the Big 3 states (Vermont, New York and Maine), the largest percentage of their syrup is sold as bulk (46%, 86%, and 93% in New York, Vermont, and Maine, respectively). It makes you wonder how much syrup is actually being produced in Ohio and is being sold out the backdoor to eastern and western packers. If this true, it is sad because the demand for maple syrup is on the increase in Ohio and the stores are flooded with Canada’s and Eastern states’ syrup.
So what have we learned from the last several maple seasons and how can we improve our maple production? The one thing that is clear is that during the last five years, we have not experienced consistent “normal” seasons for maple production. The years of 2017, 2016 and 2013 were all warmer than normal, and if you wanted to maintain average production for your operation you had to start early to get the early runs. This was especially true in 2017. The Polar Vortex years of 2014 and 2015 presented their own challenges due to the extremely cold winters and late season starts that we experienced. The fact is, when the weather is right, make your move and tap your trees. In most cases, you will never make up for production lost early in the season by trying to extend the season at the tail end. Another reason to tap early is syrup quality. It is much easier to make a quality product in the first half of the season rather than while fighting increased bacterial contamination and slowing tapholes later in the season. Hopefully 2018 will be a banner year for Ohio maple producers, we are long overdue for a good one.
Photo caption: Red Maple in Middlefield Township, Geauga County, Ohio, March 1, 2017
It is March 2nd, and we have just witnessed the warmest February on record in the Cleveland area. The 77 degree day that we experienced on Friday, February 24th, shattered every record for a high temperature in the month of February, and it was also the highest winter temperature in Cleveland for any winter month. The way the month of February ended cast a dark shadow on our ability to make maple syrup in Ohio. Now we are in March and the cold temperatures have come back but where does that leave us?
Many trees have already budded out. All of the silver maple and many red maples that are out in the open have full buds. The sugar maples though have not yet budded and this is one of the main reasons why we prize and select for this species of maple. Given the conditions we have had to date, one thing is for certain – if you have not tapped yet, the potential to make a significant amount of syrup is gone. The next warm spell will likely end the season for everyone.
Now let’s address the producers that have been making syrup and have the potential to make more syrup. If you have red maples, make sure you look at them very carefully or just pull the taps, especially trees in the open such as along a field edge or road side. Several producers with large populations of reds have called it quits altogether due to budding. For those with sugar maples, the potential is there to make more syrup, but you need to be careful not to spoil that sap by collecting sap from red maples too that have already budded.
At this point, a producer’s biggest enemy is bacteria. Everything needs to be cleaned out and drained. You could literally see high levels of bacteria building in the lines and tanks over the previous week of warm weather. Many producers just kept the vacuum pumps running during that period and hoped for the best. Many collected a fair amount of sap due to weather fronts that pushed through. I am certain it paid to operate the pumps keeping lines clear and tapholes as cool as possible. If you shut off the vacuum because the trees quit running, I hope you were using check valves because this would have given you some degree of bacterial protection at the taphole.
Now that the cold weather has returned, what kind of syrup will we make? The answer will come once your fire up the evaporator. If the sap is “buddy”, you will know it. And if it’s not, you’ll most likely be producing a darker grade of syrup. That is not necessarily bad because most producers made a good batch of Golden Delicate early on. If the producer chooses, the two could be blended but taste will determine that. You can blend for color but you cannot blend for taste. If your syrup has a slight off flavor from sour sap or budding, it will show up in the blended grade. There is virtually no way to mask a syrup’s off flavor once it is there, and there is no reason to ruin good syrup that you have already made. That is why some producers already chose to call it quits rather than risking a batch of off-flavored in the sugarhouse.
Producers that tapped in early January have had an average season. The biggest question is, after last year and this year, have we established a new normal for Ohio maple syrup production or maybe the two distinct zones of production in Ohio are just consolidating. I say this because if you produce syrup near the Ohio River, you would normally tap in January. If you live in NE Ohio you would normally tap in mid-February. Maybe we are now seeing a climate shift that will establish a universal tapping date for the entire state. After this year, producers must finally realize one can no longer tap solely by the calendar. If you produce maple syrup in Ohio, you must to be ready to go by New Year’s Day. If the season does not start until February, so be it – but at least you will be ready. Climate change is just that – change, and the only certainty in life is change. We change our systems, we change our tapping technology, we adapt.
Two years ago this fall, the maple syrup industry completed the adoption of a new system for grading syrup. The process took a long time starting back in 2011. The International Maple Syrup Institute took the old USDA Standard grades that included USDA Grade A Light, Medium and Dark and Grade B and transformed them into four Grade A categories that would include all saleable syrup. Two important additions were the flavor descriptors and the %Tc (light transparency) range. This allows consumers to compare grades based on flavor, and the new system also opens the door for standardized instruments to be used for color determination.
The four Grade A categories are Golden Delicate, Amber Rich, Dark Robust and Very Dark Strong. You will find that Golden Delicate parallels the old Light Amber Category. Amber Rich includes all of the old medium and the very top of the Grade A Dark Category. Dark Robust includes the rest of the of the Grade A Dark category and the very Top of the old Grade B Category. The Very Dark Strong Category includes the rest of the syrup that was formally classified as cooking syrup. Most very dark syrup that is produced and does not have an off flavor or a density problem will fall in the Very Dark Strong category. If syrup has an off flavor or does not meet the minimum 66 Brix level or overshoots the maximum 68.9 Brix standard, the product will be marked as commercial syrup and priced accordingly. It should be pointed out that the retail price in most markets does not change for any of the top 3 grades, and many producers sell their Very Dark Strong syrup for the same price.
The new grading system allows producers to not only sell syrup based on color but also on flavor. After all, flavor is what sells maple syrup! Flavor is a component of maple syrup judging that is quite subjective. Everyone has their own idea of what maple syrup should taste like. It is almost unfair to put maple syrup in a jug that has not been graded. It would be like labeling a cut of meat as beef. You as a consumer would be buying a package of meat without knowing if you were taking home a Porterhouse steak or stew meat. Today’s consumers are getting smarter about what they buy. Why would you try to sell them mystery syrup that could be Very Dark Strong, Golden Delicate or something in between? Your business would be missing out on an important part of marketing, interpreting and understanding what the consumer truly wants.
There is however, one word of caution about selling graded maple syrup – the grading better be right! Accurately grading your syrup is where spectrophotometry comes in. Today, for 60 to 80 dollars you can buy a Hanna Checker. There are more accurate and expensive models available for commercial packers, contest and grading fanatics, but even the most basic instrument is based on the transmission of a beam of light through the sample. As the product darkens, the percentage of light transmitted (%Tc) decreases. Once you have a reading, you match the %Tc light transmission reading on the device to the %Tc range of one of the new grades. Each grade has a unique %Tc range. Over the last two months putting together my maple syrup evaluation programs, I have had a chance to look at dozens of samples of maple syrup, some graded and some not. Many times these samples were so close it would have been impossible to grade accurately on a handheld temporary grading kit. This new instrumentation makes it easy to grade syrup and at an economical price point. This is just another evolution in the syrup maker’s production cycle that is grounded in pure science – start to finish.
Overall the new grading system has been well received. At many fairs and shows, we have heard conversations about the characteristics of each individual grade. Implementing sample tasting is a great way to interact with your customers. The customers themselves seem to really like the Amber Rich grade but more and more are trying and enjoying Dark Robust. This has been a learning experience for both producers and consumers alike. It is important to note that grading in many states is not mandatory, and Ohio is one of them. The other factor to remember is that most consumers are not familiar with how maple syrup is graded. Most consumers compare your maple syrup to your average table syrup which has no identity. I believe this is where maple producers can learn from the wine and craft beer industry. Those industries have built entire marketing campaigns around highlighting the various unique characteristics of their product. Is it out of the realm of possibility that we might someday include a tasting room in our sugar houses? Think about it, this could add a whole new dimension to the way we market maple syrup.
Based on the word from Ohio producers attending annual maple manufacturers’ open houses, it was a big year in New England for syrup production. Many of the big northern Vermont and New Hampshire producers were not present, they were still boiling syrup. When the steam cleared and the last syrup was drawn off, Vermont produced a record 1.9 million gallons of syrup in a single season. Let that sink in, it was only 10 years ago that we struggled to produce 2 million gallons collectively in all of the United States, and in 2016, the state of Vermont produced almost 2 million gallons on their own! Vermont previous record was 1.48 million gallons set in 2013. The United States produced 4.2 million gallons in total, the highest amount in modern record keeping. New York (707,000), Maine (675,000), Wisconsin (235,000), and New Hampshire (169,000) rounded out the top 5 states.
With all the syrup produced in the United States, you can only imagine what they did “north of the border.” Yes it was big, it was really big. The Canadian crop is projected at 13.5 million gallons. This would set a new record for Canadian maple syrup produced and individual provinces are expected to set records as well. You can rest assured that there will not be any shortage of pure maple syrup in the world for some time and one has to wonder what the effect will be on maple syrup prices, especially bulk.
So what about Ohio? Unfortunately, our 2016 did not share in the record crop celebration.
Ohio Maple Producers knew 2016 was going to be a disappointing year for maple syrup production, and the USDA NASS report verified our worst fears. 2016 was a real bummer for the entire state. Total production for Ohio dropped from 115,000 gallons in 2015 to 70,000 gallons in 2016. Yield per tap, generally a good production indicator, averaged 0.275 gallons per tap in 2014 and 2015 but only 0.189 gallons per tap in 2016. Normally Ohio bests most states in production per tap, but this year’s production was on the verge of disaster. The sugar content of sap (often near or below 1%) certainly did not help the overall per tap production of syrup.
Another statistic that was very puzzling was the total number of taps recorded for 2016. This year the number of taps in Ohio dropped from 450,000 to 370,000 taps. In the last 10 years, the number of taps in Vermont and New York almost doubled – Vermont is just shy of 5 million taps and NY is pushing 2.5 million. What is going on in Ohio? Why are we in a statistical state of decline? A better question may be – Is there really a decline? Working with OSU Extension and the Ohio maple industry for the last 18 years, I have witnessed an overall expansion of the industry. It has not been unusual to see the number of 3,000+ tap operations increase every year. I know of several new operations that just eclipsed the 10,000 tap mark. While we will never be in the same category as New York or Vermont, our maple industry is growing. However, when you look at the statistics, we are not recognized as a growth industry – we are an agricultural industry in decline.
The reality is that a large portion of Ohio’s maple syrup production is not being reported. There is an old saying that “if it is worth doing, it is worth doing well.” I believe that Ohio maple producers are doing a good job of producing syrup, but for some reason they are reluctant to let the world know how good of a job they are doing. Because the world rewards those that achieve excellence, it is crucial that Ohio producers improve on their reporting habits and the reward will undoubtedly be increased consumer demand and higher retail sales.