Native Americans have tapped maple trees for their sap long before the Pilgrims arrived. But while some producers still may gather the fluid in buckets, there are many more advanced ways of bringing in the 43 gallons of sap (with a 2% sugar content) needed to produce just one gallon of maple syrup. While sap production levels are dependent on some uncontrollable factors, distributors are utilizing advanced technology to help minimize loss and maximize profit in this centuries-old industry.
Freeze and thaw
According to the USDA, the U.S. produced 3.25 million gallons of maple syrup in 2013, a huge 70% gain over the previous year's yield. In 2012 there were only 24 days when sap was tapped, in contrast to 2013’s 37 days of tap flow. This difference has been attributed to the dissimilar weather experienced during these two years, a factor that needs to be just right for optimal sap flow.
Maple sap is usually tapped in March as it requires the push-pull of cold and warm temperatures to generate sap flow. Temperatures above freezing build up pressure in trees, which then pushes the sap out of a tap hole. When the temperatures fall below freezing, the tree draws water in, replenishing the sap supply. This process makes it possible for the sap to flow again during the next round of warm temperatures, so long as freezing weather returns to replenish. Once spring temperatures no longer drop to freezing at night, the sap ceases to flow.
Because of this process, the cold weather experienced this past winter may mean another good year for maple syrup, so long as areas that contribute most of the country’s maple syrup (like Vermont, Maine, and New York state) maintain freezing nights for a little while longer. "What we don't want to see is a quick transition from these below-average temperatures to above-average temperatures," observes Matthew Gordon Executive Director of the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers' Association. But producers haven't left all their business success up to mother nature. Technology has become a helpful tool in some of their collection efforts.
Vacuum line maintenance
Larger maple syrup producers no longer gather the goods in buckets but use vacuum lines to convey the sap directly to sugar houses, a process shown in this video.
But these lines can get damaged or pulled out of place by forest animals or broken branches. In the past, syrup producers had to waste a great deal of precious sap collection time making rounds to check on and repair the tubes. Now, thanks to new technology in the marketplace, there’s a better way to handle it.
A high tech solution
There are now a number of monitoring systems incorporating advanced sensors to keep syrup producers up to date with the states of their lines without having to manually check them. The Tap Track system is based on solar battery-powered radio units that can monitor the pressure of six lines strapped onto trees. The data each unit picks up is then transmitted to a computer or smartphone, where the user can see a color-coded map, with green dots indicating good sap flow, and red dots indicating leaks. The system can also be programmed to send out text message alerts.
Eric Sorkin, of Thunder Basin Maple Works in Cambridge, says: "With these remote monitoring systems, we can effectively lower our labor costs and increase our production." He described one instance in which the system showed a leak caused by a porcupine cutting the line. Workers repaired it, and then Tap Track showed another red dot. "You could follow the porcupine prints right to the next line where he'd cut it," Sorkin recounted. Without the system’s alert, “it would have been a few more days before we found those two lines," and a lot more time would have been wasted.
While technological systems cannot make up for unfavorable weather patterns that shorten the tap season, they can help maple syrup producers maximize the time they do have while also minimizing loss from broken lines.