2020 International “Fall Into Maple” Tour Planning is Afoot

Due to the closures of the spring maple tour, state associations have pulled together something unique amidst the COVID-19 restrictions – the International “Fall into Maple” Tour.  If the tour goes as well as planned, the event could easily become an annual recurrence.  2020’s “Fall into Maple” Tour is a 10-day window that individual producers will decide which dates from October 9-18 they plan to be open.  I would recommend being open at least both weekends.

While not all state and Canadian province associations have decided how they will fund, advertise, and participate, Ohio is fully prepared to engage the tour and make it a knock-out success.  Where else in agriculture can you get farmers to join together not only across state lines but also internationally to launch a cooperative event!?  Luckily, the maple community is a tight knit “family” of sorts, and we are indeed unique in supporting one another and progressing together.

Covering some more specifics – for whatever days you participate, all current social distancing rules will apply.  Depending on your location and what you are offering, producers should expect to see 10-75 visitors per day, some much more.  Think proactively about how you will disperse visitors within your property.  Again, I would recommend any participating producers be open both weekends at a minimum.  And the more you have to offer – even if it is not maple syrup or value-added products – the more visitor traffic you will draw to your operation.

Advertising and mailings will be going out soon for the “Fall into Maple” tour.  There is no grant or donated money available at this time for Ohio producers, so we will be requiring a modest fee to be included in event outreach and communications.  Fees are:

  • $10 – If you were on the spring tour
  • $30 – Ohio Maple Producers Association (OMPA) member and were not on the spring tour.
  • $75 – Not an OMPA member? This covers the tour and next year’s OMPA.

Fees will cover many printed brochures for distribution throughout our communities and advertising for your location through various channels (social media, radio, Internet, OMPA website).  Mapping details will be included.

If you are interested in participating in the 2020 International “Fall into Maple” Tour, please contact me (Fred) at 330-206-1606 or Jen at 440-487-1660.  By email, send your message to fred@richardsmapleproducts.com.

Author: Fred Ahrens, Richards Maple Products, Inc.  Fred is also Ohio’s representative to the International Maple Syrup Institute and has made big contributions to the Ohio State Maple project.

 

If you scroll to the bottom of the Research page for the Ohio Maple Blog, you can link to the 2-part webinar series our ACER team produced in June – Accessing New Markets in This Time of Uncertainty.  The “Fall Into Maple” Tour is an excellent example of thinking outside the box and being creative to carve out new marketing and sales opportunities for producers.

Marketing What You Produce In Difficult Times

Well this has turned out to be quite a week! We knew it was going to be special with time change, a full moon, and Friday the 13th all rolled into one week. However, no one was expecting the coronavirus to descend upon us with the force of a Sherman tank. COVID-19 has shut down the world as we know it and it will make life difficult for some time into the future. Ohio’s maple season is ending, and the timing of the COVID-19 virus outbreak could not have come at a worse time for sugar makers with a full supply of maple syrup to market.

Right now, here are few things to think about if you depend on end-of-the-maple-season events to move a major portion of your crop. With the governor closing public events of 100 or more people, festivals, pancake breakfasts, and tours will all be impacted. This weekend, the Ohio Maple Tours are still proceeding but there have been several stops removed from the schedule. If you are on the Ohio Tour and you plan to be open, make sure that you know which stops are closed and inform your visitors. The worst thing for tour PR is to have people show up and only have half of the producers participating. Spread the word about closures. You should be getting this information from whatever associations are planning the tour. The end result will almost certainly be reduced traffic and sales. You need to plan to market in alternate venues later in the season.

While I have not heard yet, I expect many of the pancake breakfasts across the state may be cancelled. If so, that is a lot of maple syrup that will not be used. If you are one of the producers supplying syrup, work with the folks that are planning the event. Most of these events are major fundraisers for the organization that is sponsoring the breakfast. Remember they did not want this to happen. If they cut their syrup orders, be very understanding and work with them. We have no idea how long this COVID-19 outbreak will last. That means that forthcoming festivals and maple weekends may be impacted. Hopefully this will not last into the spring farmer’s market season, but it may. If it does, this raises a whole new level of concern.

Many people who visit farmer’s markets on a regular basis may be discouraged to attend for health reasons. Also, early season markets are often indoors or in sheltered areas. If you work these events you need to be aware of the potential health risks to you, your family, and your employees. One possible way to get around the problem is to use the Internet to market your product. Many vendors keep good records and have contact information for their customers. You can contact them by email or phone and set up delivery of maple products. If you sell a variety of products throughout the year, you might want to join a CSA, short for Community Supported Agriculture. CSAs are a great marketing tool for one or several producers working in a group to sell a variety of locally grown products to customers. Customers sign a contract to pick up a basket or box of local products every week for one flat price. It is a great way to introduce new and different value-added maple products to your customers.

Please be aware that this article was not written in a state of panic. It is written to get you thinking outside the box when it comes to marketing your maple products.

Author: Les Ober, Geauga County OSU Extension

Using the New Maple Syrup Grading System as a Marketing Tool

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.

Author: Les Ober, Geauga County OSU Extension

Things You Can Do to Ensure the Quality of Your Maple Syrup

This post is in response to Dr. Michael Farrell’s article on maple syrup quality from the most recent Maple News. First let me say that the article was not only excellent but very timely. The article addresses an issue that all maple syrup producers should consider as another season is upon us. What I hope to do is highlight some of the areas in the production process where syrup quality can be compromised often resulting in off flavors. The University of Vermont and the Vermont Ministry of Agriculture has provided an excellent tool for identifying the sources of off flavors in maple.

After producing maple syrup for over 40 years and teaching seminars on maple syrup production for close to 20, I have made or personally witnessed most of the common mistakes that lead to off flavors and poor syrup quality. In this article I will go over some, but certainly not all, of the factors that lead to poor syrup quality. The good news is that most of the factors can be controlled by producers with best practices, in turn meaning you control the quality of your syrup. The Map of Maple Off Flavors (linked above) identifies 5 primary areas where off flavors occur: Mother Nature, defoamer, processing, chemicals and others. I want to address each area in order of how they would occur from start of season to finish.

When you start out the season, you need to be aware of several problem areas that can lead to off flavors. Most problems arise from the previous season’s equipment maintenance and show their ugly faces as the new season kicks off. When producers ask how they should clean equipment, my response is with a lot of water and elbow grease – and my answer is the same from large-scale producers all the way down to backyard hobbyists. Anytime chemicals are used to clean equipment, residuals left behind can compromise flavor. If you use chemicals on your pans to clean them at the end of the season, you need to thoroughly scrub away any chemical residue. If you use a tubing cleaner, make sure it is flushed entirely from the system. If you store filters make sure there is no mold on those filters when you dig them out of storage. (And never use detergents to scrub away mold on filters, THROW THEM AWAY!) The list could go on. A final guideline for this area is to always store your chemicals in a secure place away from your syrup processing so as to avoid unintended contamination of your final product. Most of the above is common sense but they need to be mentioned.

Probably the biggest culprit for off flavors comes during the processing stage. This is where the majority of mistakes are made that result in off flavors. When we grade syrup, we look at 4 primary areas density, color, clarity, and flavor. Even though each is judged separately they are actually all interrelated. Syrup must be 66 Brix to meet USDA standards and if it is below 66 Brix it can ferment and cause an off flavor. Syrup above 67 Brix normally does not have an off flavor but the higher density can cause crystallization in the bottom of each container resulting in lost revenue to the producer. As syrup moves across the front pan, density and color changes rapidly. Density changing with the rapid removal of water that increases sugar concentration, and color as heat changes the sugar molecules. Anything that interferes with flow of sap through the evaporator can cause the syrup to get darker and possibly cause an off flavor. Many feel that density is the most critical part of the process and at times reaching the proper density can be very difficult. Improper density management can lead to two off flavors that are very common in syrup – fermented and scorched. And these off flavors are often accompanied by undesirable colors as well.

We use three tools to measure density, the hydrometer, the thermometer and the refractometer. All sugarmakers use a hydrometer. Hydrometers should be inspected or checked for possible problems and replaced if suspect. Often the paper with the scale printed on it can slip resulting in the wrong Brix reading. Hydrometers can become coated with film resulting in inaccurate readings. A good hydrometer will give you an accurate reading only if it is used at the right temperature. Temperatures below that require consulting a chart to convert to the right Brix reading based on the specific temperature. Maple syrup boils at 7 degrees Fahrenheit above the boiling point of water or 219 degrees, and many producers use a thermometer to determine the draw off point. The only problem is that the 219 reading is only accurate if the barometer is at 29.9 Hg barometric pressure. Therefore, a thermometer needs to be recalibrated every time the barometric pressure rise or falls. Having an accurate syrup temperature is especially vital when it comes to setting an automatic draw off.

The final tool is what many consider the grand judge and jury of maple syrup density – the refractometer. For a refractometer to work properly, syrup must be finished and stable in temperature. This was pointed out the other day in a conversation with Robert Crooks of Marcland Instruments. For a refractometer to work properly, it has to be able to refract light coming through the sample and that can only be done accurately if the sample in the instrument is a clear finished sample. Taking a sample of cloudy unfiltered syrup will lead to an inaccurate reading. The temperature of the syrup also affects light refraction. Even though refractometers are built to automatically compensate for temperature, temperature must be stable. If you leave freshly drawn off syrup set in a container, it will continue to evaporate water until it cools down. Think of what happens to a pot roast when you pull it from the oven, it continues to cook beyond the temperature when you pulled it from the oven. This is why it is best practice to cover containers of hot unfiltered syrup in order to stop moisture loss. If you use a refractometer to set the draw off, run a sample of syrup through your filter and allow the sample to sit for 15 minutes before taking your refractometer reading. This will give you the most accurate reading from your refractometer.

If you use a conventional auto draw-off, be aware that it takes time to complete the draw off process. This means that syrup will be drawn off over a range of temperatures. Therefore set the draw off to actuate slightly below the desired temperature and it will finish slightly above. Using a hydrometer is the best way to set your draw off. However, make sure you are reading the hydrometer at the recommended syrup temperature. You can use a refractometer but remember it must be used on a finished, stable-temperature product, and this process may take more time than you have to make a correction on the draw-off.

As sap moves across the evaporator, a temperature gradient sets up. Ninety percent of the water is removed by the time the sap reaches the middle of the front pan, so syrup needs to move from the middle of the syrup pan to the outlet relatively fast to avoid darker and denser syrup than desired. A common mistake is to allow the pans to cool during the firing process. Anytime you cool off the pans, the temperature of the sap drops and this causes the boiling temperature to drop resulting in the sap on one side of the gradient to mix with sap on the other. Keeping constant and stable heat levels on the front pan is must and particularly crucial for wood-fired evaporators.

Another problem is foam control. Excessive foam in the back pan can cause problems with your float and may interfere with your ability to control the level of the sap in the evaporator. If this happens you will need to use a defoamer to control the problem. When using defoamer, the only place the defoamer should be added is at the point where sap enters the rear pan, and occasionally a couple of drops if needed at the draw-off if foam builds up as you are drawing off. This should be done at regular intervals placing the prescribed number of drops (2 drops per foot of width) where the sap enters the evaporator. Never spray defoamer across the front pan to control foam. Using defoamer in this manner will impede the boil and break down the temperature gradient. This can lead to the dreaded big batch.  If the front pan is foaming excessively, then the foam is not being properly controlled in the back pan, correct the problem back there. Use only small amounts of defoamer, excessive use can result in an off flavor. Organic producers must use safflower or canola oils which are very poor defoamers. And be careful with organic products as well because an excessive amount can produce off flavors.

Another potential problem (there are a lot of them, right?!) is niter build-up which can lead to scorching in your evaporator. Any niter build-ups will insulate the bottom of the pan from the syrup creating a potential hot spot which can eventually result in a scorched spot on the pan. You must keep liquid in contact with the pan at all times. Always keep your pans as niter free as possible by rotating sides or using a clean set of pans between batches. Using a good syrup filtering system to remove niter is vital if you want to produce syrup that meets the highest clarity standards. You should be able to read newspaper print through a sample bottle of syrup that has been properly filtered. Cloudy syrup with a lot of niter can produce an off flavor. Remember every time you heat your syrup to a boil, more niter will precipitate out and needs to be re-filtered. That is why you do not want to bring your syrup to a full boil when canning. 185 degrees Fahrenheit is the required temperature for canning.

As maple producers, we fight the growth of bacteria through our entire system. When bacterial colonies multiply in sap, they convert Sucrose sugar molecules to Glucose and other invert sugar molecules. This increase in invert sugar, when exposed to heat, will lead to a darker finished product. This is most prevalent at the end of the season when the bacterial content of sap is at its highest. Bacteria can affect the entire process of making syrup from the taphole to canning. Because sap has sugar content, it is a perfect media for bacterial growth. It goes without saying you can never be too clean when it comes to making syrup. Sap needs to be collected in clean equipment, it needs to be kept cool, and it must be processed quickly. If you start with a properly sanitized system at season’s beginning, you will have far fewer issues at season’s end – though issues may still crop up. Maple producers need to know when to end the season. Producing syrup late in the season when the trees are near budding and the sap is out of peak condition has little value to you and even less to the industry’s customers.

As you can see, there are many factors that a sugarmaker must consider in order to maintain the highest standards of product quality. From equipment sanitation to efficiency throughout processing, paying attention to details is critical and is what separates the best producers from the rest of the pack. Making the highest quality product possible should be your goal. Your reputation as a maple producer depends on it.

Author: Les Ober, Geauga County OSU Extension

OMPA Receives ODA Specialty Crop Block Grant

The Ohio Department of Agriculture recently approved a Specialty Crop Block Grant to the Ohio Maple Producers Association to better market Ohio maple syrup. The grant writing was spearheaded by Nate Bissell, Dan Brown, and Terese Volkmann. Many hours went into this successful project which will benefit all maple syrup producers across the state.

The focus for the use of the grant funds will be, first, for Ohio maple syrup producers to sell more maple products directly to the consumer which will increases producer’s income – make more money. Secondly, it will be to educate the consumer about Ohio’s deep and rich maple history and heritage which will encourage them to purchase more maple products directly from the producers. Finally, being a part of the growing agri-tourism industry which shows people where their food comes from and encourages them to purchase directly from the grower. Agri-tourism also boosts local economies because when people travel they purchase fuel, food, lodging and shop.

This will be accomplished through the Maple Madness Driving Trail in March, creating a MAPLE OHIO MAGAZINE, which will include March maple events across Ohio and other maple related information, and improving the website to have more tour and maple information which producers and consumers will benefit from.

Because of this opportunity, all producers should be marking their calendar now to participate in the 2015 Maple Madness Trail, the biggest and best maple tour in the United States, March 14 & 15, 21 & 22. Encourage other producers in your area to join in. Each year a tremendous amount of calls come in asking where to go in the Columbus – Dayton – Cincinnati region so producers in that area are encouraged to sign up. You do not even have to be making syrup, just be willing to open your sugarhouse and welcome visitors and sell them your maple syrup. You don’t even need a sugarhouse, maybe a garage set up with products to sell and maple displays and information will do the trick.

If opening your location is not practicable but you want to sell more products, purchase an ad in the MAPLE OHIO MAGAZINE. These will be distributed across the state and be something that will be kept for future maple reference. It will get your name and contact information out there so you can sell more maple products.

Tour stop registration forms and advertising information will be sent out in September.

Thanks to the ODA Specialty Crop Block Grant, the Ohio maple industry will be showcased like never before. Every producer in Ohio stands to benefit from this extensive marketing. Be sure to be a part of this opportunity.

In other exciting Ohio maple news, March is about to be officially declared MAPLE MONTH in Ohio. First, the Ohio House of Representatives passed a House Bill stating it, and then the Ohio Senate followed and passed their Ohio Senate bill. The legislation is now awaiting Governor Kasick’s signature to make March Maple Month in Ohio. This was the project of Nate Bissell working with Ohio House Representative John Patterson, Ashtabula and Geauga counties.