Maple Syrup Matures
BRI HART IS STANDING in the "sugar shack" at White Oak Farm in Yorktown Heights explaining how maple sap is converted to maple syrup. It's a cold day in January, but in just a few weeks, the shack will be boiling, clouds of maple steam rising through the rafters.
"The raw sap comes into the reverse osmosis machine," Hart says, pointing to gauges and valves on a mountain of stainless steel, "and there's a very large electric pump that actually forces sap through a membrane that is so fine we can separate water molecules from sugar molecules."
Reverse osmosis? Membranes? High pressure pumps? Molecules? Whatever happened to snow shoes, rosy cheeks and buckets hanging from trees?
Know Thine Maker
New York produced half a million gallons of maple syrup last year, ranking second behind Vermont in volume. The New York State Maple Producers Association says every household in the state, except for the unfortunate souls on Long Island, is within 50 miles of a maple-syrup producer (often much closer). The Hudson Valley is home to about 100 producers, and more are starting up every year. The association provides an easy-to-use locator and many other resources on its website, www.nysmaple.com.
More than 100 maple producers open their doors on two weekends in March for visitors to watch how maple sap is processed, sample the result and buy fresh syrup. Maple Weekends for 2017 are March 18–19 and March 25–26—details at www.mapleweekend.com. And if you find yourself up north later this year, try the American Maple Museum, in Croghan (Lewis County, in the western Adirondacks). It's open from June through early September. Info: (315) 346-1107; www.americanmaplemuseum.org
Things are changing for maple sugaring, that magical, annual ritual of draining sap from trees and boiling it down to a dark, sweet syrup. New technology is bringing efficiencies to tapping and processing while saving fuel, preserving the health of trees and making more syrup available closer to consumers interested in eating "local" and "organic."
The revolution is creating new jobs, and for the Hudson Valley and all of New York, which possess staggering numbers of untapped sugar maples and mind-boggling potential for maple-sugar products.
"The technology opened up a whole new latitude for maple sugaring," says Wayne Neckels, general manager at Crown Maple Syrup in Dutchess County, referring to new opportunities for the Hudson Valley, formerly handicapped by a climate warmer than the powerhouse maple regions of Vermont and Canada.
The practice of collecting sap from maple trees goes back to the Native Americans, who may have learned it by observing squirrels scratching away tree bark in late winter for a drink of that cool, sweet nectar. At White Oak Farm, the southern-most maple-sugar production facility in the state and the only one in Westchester County, Hart regularly sees squirrels at work in late winter. "You'll see three, four squirrels up in a sugar maple tree, nibbling off the ends of branches," he observes.
Europeans observed Native Americans extracting sap, and improved the process by drilling a hole, hanging a bucket and leaving the rest to the science of gravity. These days, pails are disappearing, however, replaced by colorful plastic tubing strung tree-to-tree. Using a mechanical vacuum pump literally pulls more sap from the tree than gravity alone would (and faster, which helps keep the sap from becoming contaminated), and also allows for a much smaller tap (less than the diameter of a pencil) to be inserted into the trees. Trees drilled for the new, smaller tap heal nearly 100 percent in as little as two years, and that translates into "sustainability," an increasingly important word these days.
The first step in concentrating the maple sap into syrup used to be boiling it to drive off the water as steam. About 40 gallons of sap would yield just one gallon of syrup, and it could take days to boil down a vat of sap. Using a reverse osmosis systems, the sap is forced through a special membrane under high pressure (around 300 psi)—up to 75 percent of the water is removed before the sap ever hits the "evaporator pan," where boiling still occurs but much less of it, saving massive amounts of time and fuel. Boiling, once measured in days, is now measured in hours.
The availability of the technology, which has slowly proliferated over the last 20 or so years, is benefiting small and large producers alike. Lanza Farms, in Garrison, has been tapping trees for just a couple of years, and this year hopes to have 1,000 taps. Using the bucket system of collection, tapping that many trees would take an army of helpers; once a vacuum tubing system is installed, the sap just needs to be collected from the bulk tank at regular intervals, which can be done by a single person.
Crown, in Dutchess County, had 18,000 taps last year and expects to use double that number this year ("We have 40,000 in the crosshairs," Neckels says), making Crown the largest producer in New York. Crown, entering its second year of production using a state-of-the-art facility, employs 35, and Neckels expects that number to hit near 50 by year's end. When completed, the facility at Dover Plains will have four 91,000-gallon stainless steel processing tanks—enough capacity to process sap from 450,000 taps, making it the largest facility of its kind in the world. (Currently, the largest processing facility, in Canada, can handle sap from up to 200,000 taps.)
Crown is a poster project for what Senator Chuck Schumer had in mind with the Maple Tap Act, a measure he's been stumping for the last couple of years. It would encourage the tapping of trees on private land. "New York has the highest concentration of maples of any state in the nation—even more than Quebec," Neckels says. But New York taps fewer than 1 percent of its sugar maples, whereas Quebec taps about 30 percent of its trees, according to research by Cornell University’s Mike Farrell, director of the Uihlein Maple Research Station in Lake Placid.
The Hudson Valley has the potential for more than 31 million taps, Farrell estimates, yet in 2010 reported only slightly more than 67,000, not counting minor numbers in Westchester, Rockland and Putnam Counties. An individual tree can support one to three taps, depending on its size; the minimum size that can be tapped without damaging the tree is about 8 inches in diameter, Neckels notes).
Even without the help of the Maple Tap Act, more and more maple trees are being tapped and that is enriching the experience of everyone who treasures locally produced organic products. Joni Lanza, who, with husband Louis, runs Lanza Farms, in Garrison, recently gave a little program for kids from the school next door. On their farm visit, the students got to pet her 13 goats, view 40 egg-laying chickens and get a taste of the maple syrup and a little lesson on what "from tree to table" means. "They could take some pride in knowing something is produced right down the road from their school," says Lanza, who gave up a 13-year career as a Broadway dancer to milk goats, collect organic eggs, infuse her own maple syrup with bourbon-barrel staves from her native Kentucky, and raise three young boys. Her husband owns and is executive chef of four restaurants in New York City (Josie's East, Josie's West, Citrus Bar & Grill, and Josephina) and uses the maple syrup there.
White Oak Farm, which last year produced just under 500 gallons of syrup, has its brand on shelves at DeCicco markets and in its own retail inventory. Anyone who has had the maple crème brûlée at Peter Pratt's Inn in Yorktown has tasted product from the trees at White Oak.
Crown produced more than 7,000 gallons of syrup in its first year (from 530,000 gallons of sap) and expects to produce at least double that this year. Its product can be found on shelves and in restaurants throughout the Hudson Valley and in restaurants in New York City. (And watch for something new on the horizon: Maple soda and maple seltzer, made with the water forced from the sap during the reverse osmosis process.)
Despite the discussion of technology, jobs and potential revenue, the old-fashioned allure of maple sugaring has not been lost. Most producers in the Hudson Valley are modest size, and some, like White Oak, despite the computers and fancy gadgets, still value the things that lend maple sugaring its rosy charm, like the spirit of a gang of volunteers working shoulder-to-shoulder in the sugar shack.
Aside from having the best name any building could ever have, the sugar shack (or "sugar house") is the place where magic happens. In late February and early March, a big tub of maple sap will steam over a wood fire, and friends and relatives will be crowding in to help. And why wouldn't they? "When this thing is fired up and perking away and the steam is just rolling through," Hart says, "it's a great place to be. It smells great, there's that maple fog—it's just a fun time."
Fly Me Away
Credit farmers for the widespread population of sugar maples in New York State, according to Crown Maple General Manager Wayne Neckels, a former aeronautical engineer and robotics expert. Most of the larger maples found in the state are growing on land that was once used for farming. As farmland was abandoned, trees began to reestablish populations–one major advantage maples have over other trees is that the aerodynamic shape of their samaras (winged seeds) keeps them airborne much longer compared to the seeds of other trees, which means more of them get disperse over a wider area. (The winged seeds of ash or elms, for example, fall to earth much faster and therefore within a smaller dispersal area.) Disperse more seeds over a wider area and in a hundred years or so you've got a pretty good stand of maple trees and a good source of maple syrup.
The aerodynamic design and flight characteristics of samaras have not gone unnoticed by scientists or, alas, the Department of Defense. Researchers at Lockheed Martin Advanced Technology Laboratories, partnered with the Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Advanced Development Program (popularly referred to as the Skunk Works) and Sandia National Laboratories, are modeling their tiny (8 gram) jet-propelled SAMARAI rotorcraft after samara. Its fascinating, revolutionary design will allow the rugged, single-rotor craft, "capable of delivering a 2-gram payload," to be valuable i many situations, ranging from fire detection to police surveillance. And, the researchers note, large numbers of them delivering lethal or non-lethal payloads via remote control would be virtually indefensible when used in "swarming missions."