When a hole is drilled into a maple tree with the thaw in the coming months and a tap put in to allow the sap to drip into a bucket, you probably picture it coming from the tree in a downward flow, right?
Well, it does but new research also showed that it could flow from the root upwards. It’s a finding that could revolutionize the maple syrup industry.
Modern Farmer described just how (emphasis added):
In October 2013, Drs. Tim Perkins and Abby van Den Berg of the University of Vermont’s Proctor Maple Research Center, revealed the findings of a study at a maple syrup conference in New Brunswick, Canada that sent waves through the industry. In 2010, they were studying vacuum systems in sap collection operations. Based on the observation that one of the mature trees in the study that was missing most of its top was still yielding high volumes of sap, they hypothesized that the maples were possibly drawing moisture from the soil and not the crown. Previously, they had presumed that the sap dripping from tap holes was coming from the upper portion of the tree. But, if the tree was missing most of its crown then, they surmised, it must be drawing moisture from the roots.
In order not to destroy the mature maples in the research forest to test their theory, they went to the maple saplings planted near the lab which are often used to gather data. They lopped off the top of the small trees, put caps on them with a tube inserted, sealed the cap and put them under vacuum. The young trees produced impressive quantities of sap, even without the benefit of a crown.
“We were looking to see, do we really need the top of the tree to function? Can we still get sap and more importantly sugar from a tree without its top and we did,” says van den Berg.
To the researchers, this means trees could be planted more densely as a crop field, increasing maple syrup production. Modern Farmer calls this planting style “the plantation method.” If implemented for maple trees on a large scale, this method could yield up to 400 gallons of syrup per acre holding about 5,800 young trees.
“Furthermore, any region with the right climate for growing maples would be able to start up maple ‘farms,'” Modern Farmer reported. The report noted that trees only have to reach about seven years old to be tapped using this method.
This type of farming style would allow more people wanting to get into the sugaring business more of an opportunity to do so for less cost and could help sugarmakers battle pests like the Asian longhorn beetle that preys upon mature trees.
Established sugarmakers like Dave Folino from Hillsboro Sugar Works in Vermont are “torn,” Modern Farmer reported.
“I could see how it would be very efficient and replace the wild crop. I’m tied to the old images but it is tantalizing the thought of controlling things,” Folino continued. “In my lifetime, I’ve seen the shrinking of the dairy industry [in Vermont]. I would hate to see the same for the wild crop but it is probably economically inevitable.”
Loren Sorkin for Modern Farmer also wrote of her personal conflict regarding the possibility of plantation planting maple saplings.
“Like Dave Folino, I fear that the industry will no longer be special to New England but will be usurped by entrepreneurs anywhere with the right climate. And on a more visceral level, I feel that maple syrup is and should remain a product of the wild,” she wrote.
Van den Berg, whose research helped show the potential of a farm versus forest style of tapping trees, told Modern Farmer she doesn’t think it would hurt the industry but would be a way to enhance it.
This story has been updated.