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Proof of power of innovation: Maple sap sweetened by science

Sap is suctioned from the top of a maple tree sapling.

Sally McCay/University of Vermont

Sap is suctioned from the top of a maple tree sapling.

With its emphasis on freshness and purity, the maple syrup industry would seem, at first glance, a poor candidate for innovation. But the 19th-century image of men hauling sap through the woods with buckets dangling from yokes on their necks disappeared long ago. Today, the process of collecting maple sap involves vacuum tubes ribboning the trees in patterns reminiscent of a Los Angeles freeway exchange. But such modern methods have helped Vermont more than triple its syrup production since 2000 and create a $40 million-a-year industry that generated 1.3 million of the nation’s 3.2 million gallons of syrup last year. Now, New England’s most iconic industry may be on the verge of a far greater breakthrough, and it should embrace the change.

Scientists at the University of Vermont have discovered that one need not wait the expected 35 to 50 years for maple trees to reach sufficient age to tap them for sap. Timothy Perkins, director of the school’s maple research center and plant biologist Abby van den Berg have found that the ingredients for maple syrup can be sucked from lopped-off saplings just 7 to 10 years old. The method involves injecting groundwater into the sapling, where it is then sweetened by the tree. Thus, instead of sugar farmers getting 100 taps per acre from trees planted in a forest-like setting, they can conceivably yield 5,000 taps per acre in a plantation grid similar to Christmas tree farms. The result would be something like 400 gallons of syrup instead of 40. The financial returns of maple syrup for Vermont stand to grow exponentially as well.

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There are reasonable concerns among farmers that the new method will destroy a way of life, or at least the aura around a renewable resource — maple trees — that can be tapped for more than a century. But traditional farming of maple sap is unlikely to disappear entirely, given the many young artisan farmers who are dedicated to preserving the old ways. And the potential benefits of vastly increased production seem to far outweigh the worries. Intensive farming at relatively small plantations may prove critical to maintaining syrup production as climate change threatens to restrict the natural range of maple trees. In addition, maple saplings are less likely to be infested by voracious invasive insects such as the Asian long-horned beetle.

The reality of today’s maple sugaring is far removed from the mystique of yokes and dangling buckets. But it still retains a relative beauty, even as science advances the prospect of mass production.

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