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

Evaluating and Leasing a Woods for Maple Syrup Production

Expansion in maple syrup states have been in high gear over the last several years. In New England and New York, there is little doubt on how and where expansion will occur. In both areas you have mountainsides with literally thousands of maple trees, and much of this land is owned and leased by the government or large private companies. If you can swing the operating capital and lease the land, expansion is as simple as running a pipeline down the mountainside to a sugarhouse. Okay – I realize it is not that simple but it is a lot easier than what expansion looks like in most parts of Ohio. We have fewer trees and in smaller concentrations distributed across the state. There is also the obstacle of convincing landowners to lease their trees which can be very difficult to say the least.

Let’s look at the process of leasing trees for maple syrup production. The majority of trees in Ohio are privately owned, and the land that is publicly-owned (either by the federal or state government) is concentrated in southeast Ohio – a region that has never been considered prime maple producing territory. Sixty percent of the maple production in Ohio is done in the northeast quadrant of the state. Northeast Ohio has experienced increased pressure from urban development and the price of that land reflects developmental value not agricultural value. This often makes it unaffordable for someone to buy a woodlot for maple production. To compound the problem, much of this land is owned by “Baby Boomers” who are aging or are now ready to leave Ohio and transfer ownership to a sibling or third party. Often the cost of ownership (e.g., property tax) or the cost of settling an estate ultimately determines what will happen to an estate. Many times the family is forced to liquidate assets such as timber to offset these expenses, and as a result, many potentially prime sugar bushes have been cut down and lost in the process. Unfortunately in times of financial stress, families do not feel as though they have time to explore all their options and fail to receive the timber’s full market value as a result of a quick sale to settle financial obligations. Later realization of this unfortunate fact often compounds the agony of estate settlement.

Today a profitable maple operation relies heavily on technology to be successful and that includes a vacuum tubing system. The financial and physical investment of installing a tubing system necessitates a long term (7 to 10 years) lease, but many landowners are hesitant about entering into this type of agreement for a variety of reasons. One of the primary reasons is that the owner does not want to be bound to a binding contract if something unexpected were to happen and they had to sell the property. Even if a sale is not forthcoming, many owners are cognizant of how their decisions might impact the next generation. All these concerns should be considered when designing a maple lease. An emergency escape clause that protects the rights of both parties is one way to deal with this concern, and another method to soften those objections is for the landowner to get a substantial financial return for leasing the woods.

Consider the fact that an average lease on cropland now starts around $100.00 per acre (averages are higher in some areas and lower in others). This would mean that woods with 80 taps per acre renting for $1.00 per tap would be nearly equivalent to many cropland leases. This quick comparison also demonstrates why maple lease rates need to start at $1.00 per tap to keep a woodlot lease competitive with other market options. Using competitive rental rate per acre as the cost basis, the most important task is to accurately estimate the number of taps per acre.

Since the early 2000s, finding a previously untapped sugarbush in prime condition in Ohio has been increasingly difficult. Often, a maple producer hears about a stand of timber that might be available for tapping, but after closer inspection the woods falls short of expectations. I can tell you from experience that I have walked more than one woodlot where the owner was sure he or she had enough trees to make syrup but reality told another radically-different story.

In other cases a quick hike reveals that the woodlot is 2nd or 3rd growth timber containing large numbers of smaller trees that are not yet large enough for a profitable timber harvest. Maple syrup production in these younger stands may be a viable option but landowners are expecting an immediate large financial return from his woodlot. More careful evaluations may reveal only single tap trees interspersed with even more trees that are not presently large enough to tap. In these cases, a producer should attempt to convince the forest owner that maple syrup production is a worthwhile endeavor only if the lease is long-term.

On the occasion that a sugarbush contains many large mature maples, it may be difficult to make a case that the landowner could make more money by leasing maple syrup production and foregoing a timber harvest. The only chance you may have is to increase the rental rate per acre and suggest that a careful timber harvest be done to capture some timber potential while releasing crop trees.

Of course, just having maple trees present is not enough to have a profitable sugarbush, so what other criteria should be considered as a producer determine the feasibility of transforming a woodlot into a sugarbush? The equation begins with a solid layout plan. The best way to determine layout is to use a GIS map with contour lines to find high and low points. Producer should avoid excessively long mainlines going to trees scattered over a wide area. Slope is important but there are work-around methods to deal with slope issues. The most common problem with slope is that the woods often slopes away from the collection point. This problem can usually be solved with the installation of auxiliary tanks, long pump lines, and a transfer pump big enough to handle the volume of sap produced. But of course, everything comes with a cost that must be considered.

If you are lucky enough to find a woodlot where sugar maples are the dominant species with trees evenly dispersed throughout, you have found a real jewel. However, most woods with sugar maples will have a mix of red maples and other hardwood species as well. Regardless of overall species composition, producers should consider any woods with 80 taps per acre a solidly viable sugarbush. Anything below 50 taps per acre would be considered marginal at best.

If the woods has been previously harvested, tree size may be an issue. Remember that trees should be at least 10 inches in diameter to tap. There are quick ways to assess tree size and density of tappable trees. You need an angle gauge or prism to determine tree size at a distance. For closer examination, a 32 inch circumference chain or rope equates to a 10-inch diameter tree. The best way to determine tap numbers is to lay out a circle with a 26.3′ radius. Standing at center and using the angle gauge or prism, count all of the trees 10″ diameter and larger within the circle. Because a 26.3′ radius circle is equivalent to 1/20th acre, multiply the number of trees by 20 to estimate the number of taps in an acre. For example, if you identified 4 single-tap maples in your 26.3′ radius circle, you would multiply 4 times 20 to yield an estimate of 80 taps per acre. In order to get a representative sample of the woods, you want to repeat this randomly at multiple locations throughout the sugar bush and average your results for a reliable estimate of average number of taps per acre for the woodlot.

Now it is time to estimate your syrup yield from the sugarbush. A well-managed vacuum tubing system should produce upwards of ½ gallon of syrup per tap. At $50.00 per gallon, you can now calculate your gross proceeds based on the average number of taps per acre. To continue with the 80 taps per acre example above, you would expect to gross approximately $2000 per acre. Before you get too excited, remember that is a gross return and your production and infrastructure expenses (including labor!) must be deducted to give you a net return on your investment. Spreadsheets such as the Maple Syrup Business Planning Guide from OSU Extension can help with this tedious projection.

Of course there are many other components of a good lease agreement, but simply stated – any lease should be grounded on the basis of Best Management Practices. This includes everything from tree size determination to landowner liability protection to other allowable practices (e.g., firewood gathering) and everything else in between.

Once a reasonable lease offer has been assembled, you must now convince the landowner. Put yourself in the shoes of the landowner and ask yourself would you consider entering into this contract if it were offered to you. Hopefully the answer is yes, but if it is not, then you should reassess before moving forward with the offer. What happens next will determine the success or failure of adding this woodlot to your operation. You now become a salesman trying to convince the owner, and hopefully the landowner will think the lease is as good of an idea as you do. If you have done your homework and you make your case honestly and sincerely, you should have a good shot at successfully expanding your maple syrup operation.

Author: Les Ober, Geauga County OSU Extension