Read the first installment of our autumn mini-series “Get Ready for the Season” here. The first article focuses mainly on the woods, and Part II sticks to the sugarhouse.
It is perfectly natural after a long hard season to put off sugarhouse cleanup and maintenance. This can be a major mistake. Getting the sugarhouse ready for the next season starts immediately after last season has concluded. Dirty unmaintained equipment sitting around in warm weather can promote the worst of unsanitary conditions that will surely haunt you into the upcoming season.
Let’s start with storage tanks. Not everyone can afford bright shiny stainless-steel tanks that are easy to clean. Many producers substitute more affordable plastic tanks. Unfortunately, plastic tanks have earned the reputation of lowering syrup grades due to rapid microbial growth. All of the elements for rapid growth are present. The sap supplies the food and the tanks warm quickly. Where do the microbes come from? They are hiding in the porous interior of the tank. That porosity is what makes it almost impossible to thoroughly clean a plastic tank. You may get by for two or three years but sooner or later the tanks will have to be scrapped. The cost of three or four plastic tanks over a ten-year period can add up quickly. Consider the economic value of a stainless tank that should last forever if handled and maintained properly.
Reverse osmosis (RO) has revolutionized the dynamics of the maple syrup industry. For the commercial producer, the RO has drastically slashed labor and fuel expenses. When it comes to maintenance, the most critical element is maintaining the primary filter or membrane. Membranes that are not maintained properly can be severely damaged. Damage can lead to the passing of sugar into the permeate tank. This results in a hidden loss of profits going down the drain. Always check your permeate for abnormally high sugar content. Washes of both soap and acid are used in the cleaning process followed by an extensive permeate rinse. A properly maintained membrane should last for many years. Another critical but oft overlooked issue are increased levels of chemicals being discharged from the sugarhouse. When you are using an RO, you are discharging thousands of gallons of liquid through your sugarhouse drains. You are also discharging acids and soaps through the same drain. If possible, neutralize the chemicals by bringing both acids and soaps back to a neutral 7.0 pH before you flush them down the drain. Neutralizing agents are readily available from your maple dealer.
Producers tend to overlook where and how they store there concentrate before boiling. When you concentrate sap, you are creating the perfect storm for a microbial outbreak. You are doubling, and in some cases tripling, the amount of sugar in the tank. When you run the sap through an RO you also boost the concentrated sap’s temperature by at least 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Assuming the concentrated sap is housed in a relatively warm sugarhouse, it makes no difference if you are using a stainless or plastic tank, microbial populations always explode in concentrated sap. The first line of defense is to boil the concentrate as soon as you can to prevent grade deterioration. If you only have enough money to purchase one stainless steel tank, make the purchase for your evaporator feed tank. This is doubly true if you are concentrating with reverse osmosis.
One of the best maintained pieces of equipment in any maple operation must be the evaporator. After all it is the center piece of most sugarhouses. Producers tend to take pride in how their evaporator looks inside and out. Here are a few things to consider before you start the season. Make sure all of the fittings and gaskets are functioning properly. It is good idea to do a test boil before using. You do not want to waste sap or concentrate if there is a malfunction. During the season, always start each day with clean niter-free syrup pans. Do not let niter build up. Excessive niter can cause a pan to overheat and even burn. Make sure you are using defoamer properly and in the proper place. If you are going to be shut down for a long time due to a warm spell, plan on draining your pans to prevent microbial buildup. Attempting to keep the liquid on the evaporator will only lead to contamination of fresh sap when it arrives and the production of poor-quality syrup. In a freezeout situation, make sure to inspect your pans to make sure they are not freezing solid. If they are, light a fire and thaw out your pans so they do not break. Again, emptying the pans is not a bad idea. Along with your evaporator make sure your filter press and auto-draw off are functioning properly. Improper maintenance of your evaporating and filtering equipment can result in the production of poor-quality syrup that will cost you money in the long run.
After the season, make sure everything is cleaned and stored properly. There are many ways to clean an evaporator and it comes down what works for you. Avoid using any kind of detergent in the cleaning process. Hot water and elbow grease wins out every time. At the end of the season, make sure your syrup is stored properly. There is nothing worse than opening a barrel of your top grade, only to find out it has spoiled. Syrup is best stored in a location where it stays below 70-degree Fahrenheit. Even though you hot pack your syrup it is wise to roll the drums, if possible, several times during the offseason. This agitation helps eliminate moisture condensation from collecting at the top of the drums due to temperature fluctuations.
If you are planning to upgrade your sugarhouse, keep in mind that this is the best time to make sure your facility can pass a state or federal inspection. All of the rules and regulations are available online through OSU Extension.
You have now done a comprehensive evaluation of your sugaring operation. What are your most cost-effective “low hanging fruit” items? Act now – season will be here before you know it.