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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Maple Buds and the Story They Tell (Part 2)

We have all heard it (or said it) – once the maple trees ‘bud out’ the sap collection season is done.  “Done” meaning the sap has become buddy and making syrup for the season is over.  Our eyes see it and we know to expect it, but we all hold out for just one more day of collection before the tide turns.  That day or the very next, the sweet smell of sap turns sour.

The good news is you don’t have to rely completely on your nose when boiling that last batch of sap.  Keep a close eye on how the tree buds develop as the season progresses.  When you start the season the buds are tight.  As the season progresses and the weather changes towards spring, the tree buds tell the story. We can use our eyes to track bud development as the season progresses, the weather warms, and making syrup draws to a close.  The good news is that this progression is somewhat predictable if one understands how something called growing degree days (GDDs for short) correlate.  Read Part 1 released last week to learn how you can start tracking GDDs and incorporate them into your season planning.

Using a 60-power spotting scope we took pictures of our trees on March 17th, 23rd and 27th during the 2021 sap season.  The bud progression is for sugar maple and a red x silver native hybrid maple that are present at the Ohio State Mansfield sugarbush.  For reference, we deemed our sap no longer worth collecting on March 21st.

First the red x silver “mystery” maple – in the March 17th photos, the hybrid’s buds are noticeably swollen but the flowers have not burst forth yet.  In the branch I’m holding, you can see the flower buds cracking open with the leaf bud still tightly closed in the center (black arrow).  This is crucial to understand because trees have both flower buds and growth buds which break at different times and have different impacts on the sugaring season.

By March 23rd, despite the difficult lighting, the buds have clearly flowered.

This is even more apparent on March 27th when I took the last set of photographs.  Examine the leaf bud (in the black circle) which is protruding more but still closed surrounded by the bright red maple flowers.  Our operation’s sap edged towards being “buddy” in the last 2 days preceding the red maple buds popping completely out.

For the sugar maple photos, the differences are more subtle and the progression is slower – a timeline we talked about in Part 1 last week.  In the March 17th pictures, the buds were barely noticeable at the ends of the uppermost twigs of the trees; however, buds were more prominent 6 days later.

By March 27th and nearly a week after we had closed down the sugarbush, sugar maple buds were elongated and swollen and obviously scaled but not yet officially burst open.

All in all, this was a great exercise to watch how trees go through the season’s progression as the weather changes.  A set of binoculars is a handy tool for the sugar maker; pick some key trees in your woods and watch their buds next year.  Better yet, keep detailed notes and be a studious observer of 3 primary things: sap quality, tree bud development, and those GDDs we mentioned earlier.  Once you are familiar with what the bud progression looks like relative to your tree’s sap production, you will have information to align alongside GDDs for anticipating when the end of the season is near.

The Ohio State Phenology Calendar: Understanding Nature’s Biological Clock (Part 1)

A special thanks to Denise Ellsworth from OSU’s Department of Entomology for contributing her phenology expertise that makes this article possible!

Phenology, sometimes referred to as the world’s oldest science, is the study of recurring biological events and their relationship to weather and climate. Examples of phenological events include bird migration, flowering of plants, and the seasonal appearance of insects. Because the growth and development of plants depend on temperatures, phenological events of plants, such as bud swelling or flowering time, may be useful for monitoring short-term weather patterns. Likewise, scientists can detect long-term changes due to climate change by tracking the pattern of phenological events over many years.

Insects emerge earlier in warmer years than in cooler years, and plants bloom earlier too. The critical assumption in the use of plant phenology to predict other biological events is that the phenological sequence (the order in which events occur) remains constant from year to year even when weather patterns differ greatly. It is no mystery, even to a novice sugar maker, why plant phenology matters in maple. The quality of maple syrup is at stake! Once the phenological calendar for a sequence is established, the biological calendar is easily monitored to anticipate when maple syrup quality drops. If phenology can be grasped, this can greatly simplify the logistics of planning and scheduling monitoring programs, post-season clean-up and sanitization, and other critical activities. And using phenological sequence is valuable to a whole host of applications beyond just maple—beekeepers, naturalists, and gardeners also use the predictable patterns of nature to predict plant bloom and other biological activity.

On The Ohio State University Phenology Calendar website, degree-day data and related plant bloom and pest emergence sequences are accessible for any location in Ohio.  A degree-day is a measure of the amount of heat that accumulates above a specified base temperature during a 24-hour period. A degree-day is also referred to as a growing degree-day (GDD), heat unit, or thermal unit. One GDD accumulates for each degree the average temperature remains above a specified base-temperature over those 24 hours. Several degree-days can accumulate during a 24-hour period.  However, it is important to understand that degree-days have meaning only in relation to the base temperature that has been specified. The Ohio State Phenology Calendar uses 50 degrees F as the base temperature. To provide an example, if the average temperature over a 24-hour period is only 47 degrees F with a base temperature of 50 F, no GDDs would accumulate. However, if the 24-hour average temperature was 55 degrees F, 5 GDDs would be added to the phenology calendar (more on degree day calculation here).

To inform The Ohio State Phenology Calendar, daily temperature data from 12 OARDC Research Stations and three USDA-ARS weather stations located throughout Ohio are used to calculate cumulative GDD in real-time.  Calculations for locations between weather stations are extrapolated from climatic isotherms for Ohio.  Upon entering a date and any Ohio zip code, degree-day accumulation for that location is calculated, and the user is directed to the appropriate spot on the phenology calendar to determine what plants are blooming and what pests are active in their locale.  By scrolling through the full phenological calendar, it is possible to see what blooming and pest events have already occurred, as well as what has yet to occur.  And by clicking on the Summary tab, you can get a year-by-year breakdown of GDD count for the same date and zip code location across the past 6 years.

It is important to define a couple terms as we launch into species-specific phenology.  First bloom is defined as the first flower opening to expose sexual parts. Full bloom is when just one out of twenty buds is still closed while all others are open to expose sexual parts.

Of particular interest to maple producers, silver maple is listed first with 34 GDD at first bloom. A bit further down the sequence, silver maple reappears with full bloom at 42 GDD.  Red maple first bloom follows at 44 GDD just after silver maple full bloom. Red maple full bloom averages 75 GDD.  Sugar maple is not currently listed on the GDD calendar; however, it is believed that sugar maple tracks very closely with black maple – another of the “hard” maples.  While there is some uncertainty about the exact GDD timing for sugar maples, they are definitely “late bloomers” as compared to their “soft” maple counterparts.

The consistency in phenological sequence from year to year demonstrates that even one year of observation is useful to expand the phenological sequence to other plants or insects not included on the OSU calendar. This means that users can readily create, expand, and customize their own biological calendars by observing plants in first or full bloom and taking note of the GDD for that date on the OSU calendar. Many observers use a journal or excel file to track plant and insect activity from year to year, adding in new plants or insects of interest. These calculations can even be made by referring to photographs that show first bloom or full bloom; the photo’s date and location can be entered on the OSU calendar to determine the GDD for that event. Insect observations should be of developmental stages, such as egg hatch or adult emergence.

For the maple producer, understanding the predictability of nature’s patterns is crucial for better anticipating the end of each maple season. For years and years, sugar maple bud break was the traditional visual signal to take down buckets and end the sap season. Unfortunately, lots of poor-quality sap was made waiting for those first buds to break. Now we know that physiological changes occur within the tree prior to actual bud break that bring seasons to a close earlier. And sanitation issues that result in “sour” sap (due to bacterial build-up) halt most sap seasons before “buddy” sap is rampant. While we are excited to continue tracking sugar maple performance relative to GDDs, keeping an eye on the 100 GDDs mark is a rough indicator for when things are winding down. Some woods will shut down earlier and others will stretch a bit later, but when the Forsythia approaches full bloom in your yard – which occurs right around 100 GDDs depending on variety – you can be sure the end of your sugaring season is nigh.

New Article Series Launches Next Monday

This short post will serve as a sort of guidepost, a table of contents or roadmap if you will, for the next month or so worth of content.  We are excited to bring you a 4-article series on maple phenology.  Phenology is a fancy word for describing nature’s calendar.  We’ll discuss one of the most practical and accessible tools for tracking phenology – the growing degree day, or GDD for short.  Second, we’ll seek to understand and document how GDD is related to species-specific patterns in maple bud and bloom timing and why that matters for maple producers.  Then over the course of two installations, Les Ober will break down why an improvement of one’s understanding of maple season timing is particularly important towards the season’s end and how you can minimize and prevent unwanted bouts with “sour” or “buddy” sap.  After all, our main goal is promoting sustainable production of high quality maple syrup!

Out of the Woods Webinar Series Continues

Future Generations University, one of our primary partners with the USDA ACER-funded work, continues to march along producing excellent monthly content through their webinar series “Out of the Woods.”  The next 2 months are scheduled for February 17th and March 17th.

For February, Cara Rose – from Pocahontas County’s (West Virginia) Community & Visitors Bureau – will discuss how to incorporate tourism practices into one’s maple enterprise.  You can register for the February 17th webinar here.  To stay plugged in to Future Generations’ broader swath of maple-related research and outreach, their Facebook page is a great follow.

Cara’s webinar topic looks like it will be somewhat similar to a great presentation by Rob Leeds of OSU Extension at the 2021 December Ohio Maple Days in Ashland.  There is a huge amount of information packed into Rob’s presentation slides from that day, and he updates a site for Ohio agritourism that is worth bookmarking and regularly checking for ideas of how to up the attractiveness of your maple enterprise.

Maple Leader Lost in Ohio

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Ohio Maple Days – Spotted Lanternfly, Part II

Part I last week focused on the basics of spotted lanternfly.  What they look like, where they are, where they might be going, what to do if you see some, and more.  This week, I want to share a few initial findings (albeit preliminary results) of how spotted lanternfly impact maples.  A big thanks to Scott Weikert of Penn State Extension for relaying these great bits of information.

First let’s start with the good news.  One bright spot of optimism for most maple producers is that while monitoring efforts are seeing spotted lanternfly in the forest, the pest does not tend to have super high population densities there.  Rather, the heaviest infestations tend to be more on the edges.  That is perhaps reason to be encouraged for most maple producers, but certainly not all.  In my own mind, I would imagine a sugarbush surrounded by intact forest on all sides is at lower risk whereas a backyard sugarmaker tapping a few open-grown trees may face more of a threat.

Heavily infested silver maple trees are showing abnormal bud swelling during the fall and producing no seeds the following year.  It remains unknown what the implications are for sap quality, but anytime an insect pest interferes with a tree’s reproductive cycle there is cause for legitimate concern.

It is certainly worth noting that initial data suggest that spotted lanternfly favor silver maple more than red maple.  As sugar maple does not constitute much of the forest composition where spotted lanternfly infestations are heaviest in Pennsylvania, it would be conjecture to rank sugar maple’s preference to other maples just yet.  As the pest moves into more localities, more will be learned.

Finally, some researchers observed that feeding on red maples tends to be extremely intense and concentrated to just a few weeks in the fall.  While no actual mortality has been observed in maples at this time, discoloration of the xylem in branches is a suspected result of heavy feeding.  It is uncertain what that damage means for future sap flow, but it stands to reason that discolored wood may inhibit sap flow if the response is similar to when a tree compartmentalizes the wound of a taphole or other injury.

While this post leaves far more open gaps in our understanding of how spotted lanternflies may impact the maple resource in the future, it is a start.  As the pest continues to infest new locations and studies gather more data, we will be better equipped to anticipate and combat impacts from this novel forest pest.

For more information, see Part I from last week or check out Penn State’s resources for spotted lanternfly to learn more.

If you see spotted lanternfly or other invasive species, please report your findings!  That is the single best way to improve the efficiency of any efforts to fight back.  Click here for more information on reporting through the Great Lakes Early Detection Network (GLEDN).

Ohio Maple Days – Spotted Lanternfly, Part I

Despite significant changes to the timing and schedule of Ohio Maple Days not to mention the ever-evolving challenges presented by COVID, we had a great turnout in Ashland back on December 11th.  A subset of maple producers, about 20 in number, also enjoyed an excellent syrup grading workshop on Friday night the 10th.

During the morning session, Amy Stone (an Extension educator from Lucas County) presented on spotted lanternfly and was kind enough to share her graphic-heavy slide deck with us.  You might consider this a Part I post and I’ll follow-up with a Part II next week.

This half is all about spotted lanternfly.  What do they look like, where did they come from, where are they now, where might they be going, why you should care about them, and most importantly – how to report spotted lanternfly if you do spot them.  Click here to access Amy’s whole slide deck from her presentation on 12/11/2021.

Spotted Lanternfly (Amy Stone) Slide Deck from Ohio Maple Days December 2021

An infestation of adult spotted lanternflies is pretty hard to miss or mistake for something else.

The adults are preceded by 4 instars of developing maturity.  Each stage has a diagnostic “look” and the season when they are active.  Familiarizing oneself with the life cycle and knowing how spotted lanternfly will manifest depending on the time of year is key for solid monitoring.

At first glance you may only notice the one egg mass but look up and you’ll see a second.  Egg masses immediately after a female lays is fairly easy to see, but with passing time, the shiny coat over the egg mass fades and the mass become far more cryptic and camouflaged.

Spotted lanternfly was first detected in Jefferson County, OH, but recently Cuyahoga County has been added to the list of known OH positives.

For a comprehensive dive into spotted lanternfly, dig through the slide deck.  It’s a great exploration of this novel invasive forest pest.

Part II next week will focus on some specific preliminary findings on how spotted lanternfly are believed to be impacting maples.  Because of where spotted lanternfly infestations are currently heaviest, most of the results are from Pennsylvania and most applicable to red and silver maples, but you’ll want to tune back in to hear what some researchers – including several from Penn State University – are starting to learn about the maple – spotted lanternfly interaction.

If you see spotted lanternfly or other invasive species, please report your findings!  That is the single best way to improve the efficiency of any efforts to fight back.  Click here for more information on reporting through the Great Lakes Early Detection Network (GLEDN).

2022 Maple Season Forecast from a Climate Expert

Please join us at 7:00 PM, Thursday January 13th to learn from OSU Extension’s Aaron Wilson about how weather, climate, and maples interrelate.  His talk has immediate implications for this current year’s sap run and a long ways into the future.  Those of you that have heard Aaron speak before know that it is a real treat to learn from his expertise.  Register here at the Woodland Stewards website.

Dr. Aaron Wilson is an Atmospheric Research Scientist with the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center and Climate Specialist with a joint appointment in OSU Extension.  He will shed some light on how the coming maple season may turn out.  Dr. Wilson’s presentation will include the 2022 short-term forecast as well as how our changing climate may alter maple production in the future.  Future climate projections pose significant challenges to the future of maple production across southern maple producing zones.  Planning for the future and considering how best to meet those challenges is crucial for sustained maple production in the long-term.

Synopsis:  From increasing winter and spring temperatures to extreme weather events, climate change poses a risk to the maple syrup production community. These changes alter short-term conditions like quality and quantity of sap, while long-term changes in climate are having impacts on the health of trees, roots, and shifting areas where production is viable. Projections of future climate pose significant challenges to the future of maple production across southern zones. How might the community plan for and mitigate these impacts? Join us as we explore the influence of weather and climate change on the maple industry and discuss the implications for the future.

Register TODAY!

Maple Assistance Opportunity through EQIP

The Environmental Quality Incentive Program, EQIP for short, provides financial and technical assistance to agricultural producers and woodland managers to combat environmental concerns and provide natural resources benefits.  Maple Producers should be excited to know that several maple practices are now eligible under EQIP.

How does EQIP work in the first place?

EQIP is a voluntary program, and contracts are available for a single year ranging up to a full decade.  The list of EQIP practices is long.  If you can imagine an environmental issue facing a farmer or woodland owner, you can safely bet there is an EQIP practice (or 3!) to meet that need.  Successful applicants to receive EQIP assistance paid at either a 75% or 90% rate to implement the recommended activity on their property.  Historically Underserved applicants, which includes Beginning Farmers, Limited Resource Farmers, Socially Disadvantaged Farmers, and Veteran Farmers, can tap into the higher 90% rate.

How does maple fit in to EQIP?

There is no set-aside pot of money allocated only for maple producers.  To improve your chances to get maple-related assistance, you should couple forestry- or wildlife-related practices.  Think tree or shrub plantings, managing grapevines or invasive species, or improving your woods through a Timber Stand Improvement (TSI) cut for just a few examples.  If you are a farmer, there are plenty of other practices to consider as well.  The more comprehensive and realistic your application to EQIP is, the better your odds of being a successful awardee.

So what are the maple-specific EQIP practices?  There are functionally 2 practices – reverse osmosis and sap preheaters that fall under Practice Code 374 – Energy Efficient Agricultural Operation.  Once you break up the size of sap preheaters into small/large and bracket RO units as small/medium/large capacity, the number of specific items actually grows to 5.  The 2 graphics below will explain more of the cost rate assistance details.

When/how do I apply?

The very first step is to determine if you are eligible to apply, and the initial process starts with establishing records with the Farm Service Agency.  Once eligibility is determined, you can proceed with your application.  All the applications are ranked against one another for funding priority.  In other words, EQIP ranks applications to ensure their dollars are going as far and as efficiently as they possibly can.

When to apply is just as important as How to apply.  The next batch of EQIP applications will be finalized and ranked on January 14th for the Fiscal Year 2022.  Though applications can be submitted year-round, any application received after mid-January will be considered in the 2023 batch of applications.

Who can help me apply?

You should contact your local NRCS service center and get in touch with the ODNR Service Forester covering your territory.

When will I find out if I got EQIP assistance?

It’s hard to know an exact date; however, once when successful applicants are notified, the final step is to sign contract documents once they are ready.

 

Don’t be discouraged if you miss the January 14th deadline, you can always be working on your application for the next Fiscal Cycle.  While there is no guarantee that maple producers will be so well-positioned to benefit from EQIP in coming years, EQIP is a wonderful program that can benefit your maple operation but in much broader ways as well.

Author: Gabe Karns
Special thanks to Gary Graham for forwarding information about the Practice Code 374 eligibility.