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Syrup-makers go high-tech

The solar-powered system monitors pressure in sap lines like those of Donnie Richards’ operation in Vermont.

AP

The solar-powered system monitors pressure in sap lines like those of Donnie Richards’ operation in Vermont.

MILTON, Vt. — Maple syrup production has come a long way from metal buckets hung on trees, but even high-tech operations have had to rely on old-fashioned foot patrols to fix a common problem — leaks.

The tubes that draw sap from trees straight to sugar houses often get pulled or bent by falling limbs or chewed by critters, meaning sugar-makers spend hours and sometimes days stomping through snowy woods to find and fix problems — a time-waster in a sugaring season that lasts a few weeks.

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Sugar-makers are now harnessing new technology to keep the precious sap flowing.

Meadowbrook Maple Syrup installed a monitoring system in January that is already paying off. Designed to help mid-to-large scale syrup producers keep an electronic eye their sap vacuum lines, the Tap Track system consists of solar battery-powered radio units strapped to trees, with each unit monitoring the pressure on a half-dozen lines. The data is transmitted to a computer or smartphone, where it shows up as a map with green dots indicating lines with good sap flow and red dots indicating leaks. Users can get text messages alerting them to problems.

‘‘I think it’s the thing of the future. I really do,’’ owner Donnie Richards said. In the past, Richards and his crew walked the woods of Milton listening and looking for leaks, which was time-consuming.

‘‘And if you didn’t find the leak that day, you didn’t get sap off that part of the woods all day long,’’ he said.

Now Richards uses his iPhone to check the system and can immediately see a leak.

His operation includes about 5,000 taps and about 18 miles of tubing spread out over more than 100 acres. The new system costs $1 to $2 per tap, but inventor Jason Gagne said the return on investment can be seen in one season. He said the test site of 20,000 taps in Ontario resulted in a more than 5 percent increase in sap collection, or an extra $15,000.

Gagne, who used to spend days on end patrolling his own sugar bush in Swanton, came up with the idea several years ago, teaming with Canadian sugar-maker Doug Thompson to develop the product.

The University of Vermont’s Proctor Maple Research Center is using a similar remote monitoring system for the first time this season, as the technology becomes more commercially available. Smartrek, produced by a Quebec-based company, also monitors sap lines for leaks and provides the information immediately on a smartphone or tablet.

Nationally, maple syrup production totaled 3.25 million gallons last year. Vermont led with 1.3 million gallons, followed by New York, Maine, Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. Each of those gallons of syrup required sugar-makers to collect 40 gallons of sap.

It takes warm days and cold nights for sap to flow, so the conditions are right for syrup-making for about 4 to 6 weeks.

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