Not Just Sugar Maples – Part I

Ohio Maple Days 2022 did not disappoint.  The food was fantastic, the vendor room crowded, and the presenters shared a wealth of knowledge of expertise across a wide range of subjects.  I was among those speakers, and Abby van den Berg and I presented a pair of talks that focused on those other maples.  Abby’s perspective from Vermont and focused mainly on pure red maples (come back for Part II next week for those highlights), and my perspective sharing from the basis of our ACER-funded research on Acer freemanii, Freeman’s maple, or just “rilver” for short.  Before we get into it, be sure to mark your calendars for next year’s conference December 8th and 9th!

Let’s try this recap in a series of short statements.

1) Sugar maples are the gold standard for maple syrup production – there is no disputing that.

2) But other maple species probably deserve more love than they have traditionally been given.

3) Mounting pressures from climate change, forest pests, and a host of other reasons make other maple species more important to consider than ever before.

4) Because of the above, it makes sense to learn more about other maple species production potential.

5) We thought we had simple (red x silver) hybrid maples in the OSU Mansfield research sugarbush where we have our single-tree research stations.

6) We thought wrong.  Turns out the hybrid maples are more mysterious than that – stay tuned for further genetic testing!

7) Regardless of what other variety of maple we are working with it still made sense to compare their production potential and other characteristics to sugar maple.

8) Research began in the 2021 as we pulled over 20 sugar maples and 50 of the mystery maples into single-tree sap collection chambers that measured daily performance.

9) Research techs and research PI quickly learned that maple research can be icy cold!

10) The 2021 season was historically bad and we had 5 roller coaster runs total.

11) During the 2021 season, our mystery maples maintained Brix levels better than sugar maples albeit not quite as sweet overall as sugar maples.

12) Mystery maples lost ground to sugar maples in terms of sap production volume as the season got later and later.

13) Surprised yet?  Maybe not.  But consider this – the best half of our mystery maples OUTPERFORMED the worst half of our sugar maples in terms of syrup production potential.  Would that also hold true for 2022?

14) Fast forward 11 months to yet another choppy, wild, and erratic 2022 sap season.  When will we have another “normal” sap season?

15) Note to self, might have to add another 10 degrees to y-axis of Sap Run graph in 2023.  I surely hope not!!

16) More in line with studies elsewhere, our 2022 mystery maple trial trees matched or outpaced sugar maple’s sap volume production up until the final sap run of the year.

17) Brix consistently tracked 0.2-0.4 points below for mystery maples as compared to sugar maples.

18) Ultimately, we’re excited and hopeful for a “normal” 2023 season to collect data from a more representatively average season.

19) In the interim, both years suggest that mystery maples are not to be overlooked especially if you are an operator using reverse osmosis in your sugarhouse looking to expand your number of taps.

20) Stay tuned for 2023 – our 3rd year of ACER-funded research investigating alternative maple species production potential.

Fall Maple Assessment – Get Ready for Next Season

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

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

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

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

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

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

State Service Forester Maple Workshop

Shortly after the 2022 Maple Boot Camp concluded, we hosted a dedicated workshop for ODNR’s State Service Foresters.  To find out who is  your local forester, click here and consult the district map and contact list.

To learn more about ODNR’s State Service Foresters, visit their website here.

The goal of the workshop was 2-fold.  First and foremost, goal #1 was to educate and work with Ohio’s forester community around the topic of maple.  Maple gets mentioned a lot at professional conferences, workshops, seminars, and in day-to-day interactions; however, mentions are most often just in passing.  Therefore, having a dedicated full day to talk only about maple as it pertains to sugaring potential was an absolute treat.  And it was extremely well received.  Everyone in attendance, which was well over half of the Service Foresters statewide, left with an enhanced knowledge of maple and increased level of comfort and ease to speak with landowners about the non-timber maple opportunities.

Goal #2 was to introduce a maple toolbox for foresters and other natural resource professionals.  This is a collaborative project that is still a work in-progress; however, it is puts actual tools in trained hands to assess maple woods for sugaring potential.  High level site assessments and fine-scale granular inventories, resource lists to get connected within the state’s maple vendor and contractor community, basic information about maple pests and identification, and more.  The toolbox empowers our state forester community to be advocates for maple while they are out doing their job and interacting with Ohio woodland owners.  As the toolbox hits full stride, we are excited to share its impact and reach!

Ohio Maple Boot Camp

We hosted Maple Boot Camp at Ohio State Mansfield on June 22-24.  Carri Jagger, Thomas deHaas, and Kathy Smith pulled this post together for the Buckeye Yard & Garden Online blog.

We cannot hold events of this quality without a lot of help and support.  A big thanks to Carri and Kathy, Mike Lynch from CDL, Mike Hogan of OSU Extension, Sayeed Mehmood, Les Ober, Mike Rechlin, Kate Fotos, and Mike Lucero.  I hope I am not forgetting anyone.  And an especially huge thanks to the Brown family at Bonhomie Acres and Stan Hess for opening up their operations for tours and interfacing with Boot Camp attendees.

Here are a sprinkling of photos to supplement what you’ll see at the linked write-up above.

Sugarbush Storm Damage

There’s a mainline hiding under there somewhere!

Many Ohio producers experienced damage – some slight and others major – during the derecho that sliced through our state overnight on June 13th.  At the Ohio State Mansfield sugarbush, we thankfully escaped what I would call major damage, but the storm did knock down 30 or 40 trees throughout our woods.

As temperatures start to cool in another month, I hope to get most of the clean-up work done before the crunch of late fall turns into New Year’s panic with the 2023 season breathing down our neck.  For woods like ours, 2 or 3 days of cutting should clear most of the damage.  For others however, hard decisions are being made as the devastation was on a tragic scale.  I recently spent a couple hours in the historic Malabar Farms sugar woods and could not believe my eyes.  Unfortunately, their scenario is not an isolated one.

Whatever your circumstance, be safe out there as you tackle storm damage.  Downed and twisted trees are unpredictable.  If in doubt, don’t.  Don’t be afraid to hire an expert.  Always work with a partner.  Always wear your PPE.  Work with sharp saws.  Document your losses, you may find that damages can be leveraged as a tax reduction claim.

And most of all – BE SAFE!!

Ohio Sugarbush Highlighted by NRCS – New VIDEO

As you brush the dirt off your knees and shake the cobwebs from your head (what a crazy syrup season!), here is a new video featuring one of our state’s own maple producers – Bill & Dee Belew of Messenger Century Farm in Chagrin Falls, OH.  You’ll remember that we have highlighted the EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program) and other NRCS programs (such as the Conservation Stewardship Partners program) as excellent opportunities for maple producers to improve their woods AND their operations.  This video is a marvelous example of just that.

A special thanks to Brooke DeCubellis who produced the video.  Brooke DeCubellis serves as the Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS) public affairs specialist in Ohio.  In this capacity, she creates and leverages communication strategies and products supporting NRCS objectives throughout the state.  She maintains effective working relationships with regional partners, highlights local producer conservation efforts and shares technical and financial resources to further natural resource stewardship within the state.  Brooke is a skilled communications professional, with more than ten years of experience in federal and state government work, specializing in media relations, public engagement, photography and videography.  Thanks Brooke for shining a light on a fine example of what Ohio sugaring is all about!

Ohio Maple Days 2021 Presentations AVAILABLE

Despite being virtual due to COVID-19, 2021 Ohio Maple Days – or more accurately Ohio Maple Day sans the “s” – was a success.  The audience, two hundred or so strong, heard presentations on tapping and updates from our ACER grants in addition to how production might be increased with red maple.  A big thanks to this year’s speakers and an extra round of applause for the committee who worked hard on an event that looked quite a bit different than in years past.  One silver lining to having a virtual event is that the sessions are easily recorded.

Visit the Ohio Woodland Stewards Maple page and scroll to the bottom of that webpage to access the different presentations.  Let us know what you think and send us any questions, comments, concerns, or suggestions to talk topics for next year!

Maple Story Map – Students Are Key to Maple Success

Given that Ohio State is a university and has well over 60,000 students enrolled, making the statement – “students were involved” – seems like a needless statement of the obvious.  But in the case of the Mansfield Maple program and larger Ecolab initiative, the fact needs to be explicitly stated.  Students have been heavily involved.

The maple program itself is the fruition of a student report inventorying the Mansfield campus’ forest resources back in 2013.  A simple charge to “explore potential of the mature forest for a maple sugarbush” and subsequent student effort to do the project scoping have led to a whole host of tangible outcomes, not the least of which is a re-invigoration of the School of Environment and Natural Resources’ (SENR) commitment to non-timber forest products.

And student involvement has continued to this very day.  Ecolab student interns assisted in the Mansfield sugarbush installation and have participated annually in tapping and other system maintenance tasks.  Students have performed invasive species management in the maple stand and catalogued each individual tapped tree throughout the sugarbush.  A student research team helped establish the complimentary crop tree release demonstration area that targets sap-producing maples as one of the focal stand management objectives.  And last year, a Capstone group of SENR seniors explored new ways to assess and management for sugarbush tree health and vigor.  The deliverable outcome of their project was a well-crafted Story-Map linked here.  We encourage you to view the high-quality work of our Forestry and Wildlife seniors and learn about crop tree management, the threat of invasive plant species to our native biodiversity, and the potential effects of climate change on future sugarbush resilience.

Students have been an integral part of making OSU Maple a success.  By purchasing maple syrup and showing your support of the program, you can make sure student support remains a centerpiece of the initiative moving forward.  We are proud of our students and are thrilled to know that Ohio’s maples will be in safe hands for future generations.

Author: Gabe Karns

Spot the Spot: Friday in the Woods Webinar

Amy Stone, OSU Extension educator for Lucas County, Ohio, will be presenting a webinar on November 13th from 10 AM-noon on the spotted lanternfly.  From state and national spotted lanternfly updates to the latest on host plant distributions and invasive pest insect research – you won’t want to miss this one.

Maple producers across the region should be informed on this invasive forest pest and be part of the solution to ensure early detection and rapid quarantine limits damage on Ohio’s forests.

The webinar is part of the Friday in the Woods series hosted by OSU’s Woodland Stewards ProgramYou can register here – FREE.  ISA and SAF credits are available.

What Will the Ohio Maple Syrup Industry Look Like in 2050?

(This is a follow-up post to the July 16th post on leasing and evaluating maple stands. It contains more questions than answers.)

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I had a chance to read in depth the latest edition of The Maple News. What caught my eye was an article about a recent study concerning the health of maple trees in the Adirondacks Mountains of upstate New York. The article documented the relatively slow growth of sugar maples in that region. For many Ohioans reading articles like these, the importance does not always hit home because the article is about someone else’s problem faraway from the local sugar bush. So why should we be concerned? The answer to that question became all too clear after attending a two-day planning meeting for woodlot management at Holden Arboretum.

Holden Arboretum is a nationwide-recognized premier arboretum covering 4000 acres with all types of hard and softwood tree species. Holden’s tree research is highly respected around the world, and the property includes several old sugar bushes and a grove of super sweet trees. One of Holden’s latest projects is entitled the “Working Woods”. It is designed to examine how local woodlots are managed, not only for timber but also non-timber forest products such as maple syrup. The initial meeting was more of an introduction to the project but also provided a chance to share opinions on the subject of forest management. The group sitting at the table included arborists and foresters from several states, commercial foresters, experts from state agencies, and members of the Holden staff. I was fortunate to be selected to represent Ohio’s maple syrup industry and what I took home from the discussion changed my perspective on forest management.

For several years now, one of my OSU Extension projects in Geauga County has been to examine what is happening to the maple tree resource in NE Ohio. This project entitled, “Preserving Sugar Maple for the Next Generation”, is finding out that NE Ohio maple syrup production may be entering a new phase. After World War II just about every farm (most small dairy farms) had a sugar bush. The sugar bushes were small and there were many individual sugar camps per square mile. This gave the appearance of an endless supply of maples to tap. Fast track 50 years later to the year 2000, most of the small dairy farms were sold because their owners could not keep pace with the modern expansion of the industry. Many of the sugar bushes were cut down and replaced with housing developments or other land use conversions. Housing development also increases the demand for home furnishings, and one of the most popular furniture hardwoods today is maple. It is no surprise that Ohio has become one of the leading producers of hardwood furniture in the country, and that industry is centered in Holmes County just 60 miles from the Geauga County. Suddenly with a new interest in the maple tree, and it is not only for syrup production, tracts containing old sugar bushes are being harvested at a steady pace to keep up with the furniture industry’s demand. This would be okay if we lived in an area where there were expansive tracts of timber, but we do not. Instead we live in an area where there are small woodlots, 10 to 20 acres that cannot absorb extensive harvest. To make matters worse, the people doing the logging feel that the only economical cut they can make is a clear cut, and whether perception or reality, selective cutting just does not generate enough revenue to bring in a mill. As a result, northeast Ohio has become the poster child for bad logging practices.

One thing I learned at the Holden meeting was that along with increased harvest pressure maples are now under increased environmental pressure from other fronts. We live in a world of invasive species, natural imbalances, and yes the polarizing term, climate change. As the study from the Adirondacks noted, trees that should be thriving are just not growing at the rate they should due to multiple factors. In Ohio we have also seen increased pressure from wildlife and insect damage on the surface and earthworm damage from beneath the soil. Both have led to reduction in the regeneration of young trees to replace the aging trees that will soon be lost. I have been able to document this at Holden Arboretum over the last 8 years. While recently standing in the middle of one of the Holden Arboretum Working Woods demonstration sites (an Old Sugar bush), I was alarmed at the overall lack of regeneration. The question came to mind – If you are unable to regenerate new growth in a well-managed woodlot inside an arboretum, what are the chances of maple trees coming back in a site that had been clear cut for timber production? The answer to that is all too obvious. Only under the best circumstances would a clear cut woodlot spring back into maple production. Unfortunately in northeast Ohio, Best Management Practices in logging are seldom used. This leaves one to ponder – With 60% of Ohio’s maple syrup currently being produced in northeast Ohio, what will the Ohio maple syrup industry look like in 2050? The bigger question is what will be needed to protect the valuable sugar maple resource.

One result coming from the OSU study is that the risks to maple trees are significantly higher on private property than on public property. There are still good healthy stands of maple trees growing in our parks and on other public lands; however, even those maple stands are under constant pressure from overabundant deer herds.

Landowner education is must for managing private woodlots. Education process starts by showing a landowner the range of options available for woodlot utilization and management. Beyond that, landowners still need to be convinced that the best way to make those decisions is to seek professional help before signing any contractual agreements. This means that certified foresters need to appraise the resource. If they decide not to cut and to pursue non-timber forest products, landowners need to contact someone who can show them how to make that happen as well. As Cornell University Maple Specialist Dr. Michael Farrell points out in his book A Sugarmaker’s Companion,

Often the best way to save a maple tree is to utilize it for maple syrup production.

It is not my intention to dictate what a landowner should do with his or her property. Certainly if they have made up their mind to harvest the timber for whatever they are offered, they have the right to do that. The problem is that what looks good on the surface does not always end up that way and there are often regrets when the process is completed. We need to make sure woodland owners are making informed and educated decisions with all the information on the table. Hopefully somewhere along the way, we will see fewer woodlots suffering the brunt of unsustainable logging practices and more going into maple syrup production. In the meantime, enjoy the hours you spend in your sugarbush and never take the sweet gift of making maple syrup from these magnificent trees for granted.

Author: Les Ober, Geauga County OSU Extension