Pricey gear helps maple industry cope with dicey weather
CAPITAL REGION Steve Savage had to raise his voice over the rumble of his Ford Super Duty early Tuesday morning.
He was working out the delivery schedule of a new $9,000 sap vacuum pump on his way to a nearby maple stand.
“The syrup industry has turned high-tech,” he laughed, hanging up the phone.
Savage runs Peaceful Valley Maple Farm nearly single-handed, and early spring is one his busiest times of the year. Tuesday morning he drove from his home outside Johnstown to his newest stand of maples a few miles away.
“I’ve been in the woods every day since December,” he said, strapping on a hefty tool belt and backpack of spare tubing and drill batteries before legging it off into the woods at a surprising pace for a man in steel-toe boots.
Walking into a stand of newly tapped sugar maples, many people might expect a collection of galvanized buckets hanging from trees, pinging with drips of cold sweet sap. Something from the “Little House” books might come to mind.
But Savage uses the modern tools of the industry, and installed a much more intricate sap collection system on the new land during the coldest stretch of last month.
There’s only one bucket of sorts, a 3,000-gallon stock tank connected to 2,000 tapped maples by an incredible spider web of tubes.
Savage walked the line as he does nearly every day of the sap flow season, looking for holes and squirrel bites in the tubes, and this day describing their function.
At first glance it looks like a work-saving system, just a way to avoid emptying buckets, but it’s actually much more. Sap runs up and down a tree based upon rapid temperature changes. Syrupers hope for cold spring nights, down to 20 degrees, and days with temperatures around 40 degrees. The change in temperature causes a pressure shift in the tree, pulling sap out of the roots and into the trunk, where Savage’s taps can siphon it off.
Problem is, that perfect temperature shift is hard to come by.
“We only get maybe seven good flows a season,” he said.
When the new vacuum pump arrives and Savage hooks it up to the air-tight hose network, it will actually suck sap from the trees.
“It allows us to sort of mimic the pressure changes in the tree usually caused by weather,” he said. “On a good day that gets us 50 percent more sap.”
Seven of Peaceful Valley’s nine maple stands have a similar vacuum system, lending Savage a small amount of certainty in an industry of unknowns. Sap flow is still dictated mainly by the weather, but the great web of tubes stretches out the season.
With weather patterns as erratic as they’ve been over the last few years, that’s a very good thing. Savage has watched spring weather like a hawk since his grandfather taught him to syrup at just 14. In that time he’s seen syruping seasons get earlier and shorter as temperatures rose.
Last season was the worst yet — getting sweated out by an early hot spell a full month before predicted.
The syrup industry all across the state was devastated.
“Last year we did about 60 percent of our usual,” said Bruce Frasier. “It was 80 degrees in March.”
Frasier operates about 3,500 taps north of St. Johnsville. They’re all on vacuum systems, which he credits with what little success he did have.
“The guys without vacuum systems did maybe 20 percent,” he said.
The technology did help, but like all agriculture, yield comes down to weather. So far this year is looking good.
“This is normal,” Frasier said, “Last year was not normal.”
On Tuesday, Savage strolled through the woods in a light sweatshirt despite the finger-numbing cold.
He checked taps and flexed sap-frozen tubes, happy for the chilly temperature. He figures this season might be more like the ones of his childhood.
Back in his sugar house on Lagrange Road, he fired up the massive stainless steel evaporator and clicked on the jet engine roar of his twin high-pressure reverse osmosis machines.
There was a small run of 8,000 gallons of sap during a warm patch Friday, ready to be boiled down to the earliest grade A syrup. Not a huge amount of syrup, though: It takes 40 to 50 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup, depending on the sugar content.
The technology may have come a long way since grandpa Savage passed on the craft, but the billows of steam filling the rafters still smelled the same.
“I hope to make 2,000 gallons by April,” he said.