At the Parker Family Maple Farm in West Chazy, NY, we implemented different strategies in spout and dropline replacement at seven different sugarbushes over a 3 year period. We kept track of the total sap and equivalent syrup production from each sugarbush each year. Our findings indicate that replacing old droplines on existing tubing systems and combining that treatment with a new spout every year is the most cost-effective means to increase sap production. As a result of our findings, we are replacing all of the old droplines on a continuous basis and have started utilizing new clear polycarbonate spouts every year in order to provide us with optimum yields in a cost-effective manner.
At the Parker Family Maple Farm in West Chazy, NY, we tap over 40,000 trees and produce maple syrup as our primary source of income. We put out 20,000 taps on our own 500 acres and also lease and buy sap from 20,000 taps from 5 landowners within a 20mile radius. In addition to the 4 family members that make up the core of our 5 generation farm, we also hire 3 people to assist on a year round or seasonal basis. Our technical advisor on this project has been Dr. Michael Farrell, the Director of Cornell University’s Maple Research Center in Lake Placid, NY. Michael assisted us with project design, data analysis, disseminating the results, and drafting the final report.
The tubing systems we use to collect maple sap are expensive to install and quickly degrade over time, reducing the amount of sap that can be collected from a sugarbush. No matter how well the tubing system is cleaned, bacteria buildup in the tubing degrades sap quality and limits sap yield. Research by the University of Vermont has shown that if no efforts are taken to replace different components of the tubing system, within 5 years the tubing system will only yield about 50% of the maximum capacity as if the system was new. Since tubing systems require a lot of plastic and are expensive and time consuming to install, we need to find new methods that allow us to maintain high sap yields without extensive investment in new tubing materials. Over the past several years researchers at the University of Vermont and Cornell University have been exploring different methods for replacing just the droplines (~30” of tubing that connects the spout to the lateral line tubing) and/or the spout. The research has shown that any type of these methods will improve sap yield, but there has been conflicting results regarding the effectiveness of each strategy. These different strategies also differ greatly in the time and resources needed to carry them out, so we need a better understanding of the benefit/cost ratio for implementation. Furthermore, all of the studies were done in controlled experiments with a limited number of trees. There have not been any studies done on a large scale in a private, commercial sugarbush, such as the one we have at Parker Family Maple Farm. Although maple producers look to the scientific researchers for information and guidance, many maple producers are reluctant to try a strategy until a “real producer” has tried it in their sugarbush and experienced positive results. We know we should do something to improve our yields, we just don’t know what will get us the biggest return on our investment. As previously stated, if we just put in a tubing system and did not replace any of the components on a regular basis, our sap yield would fall by roughly 10% per year. However, there are so many different strategies and options to choose from that we (and other producers) are often left confused and wondering which one will be the most cost-effective choice. Should we replace our droplines every year? Can we just put on a new check-valve adapter every year? The goal of our project was to provide some better answers to these questions and others, on a commercial scale, with guidance from scientific researchers at Cornell University.
Our main objective was to determine what changes in dropline replacement and/or spout selection would result in the greatest yields of sap. Since there are many different options on the type of spout to use and a debate on how often to replace droplines, we hoped to collect a great deal of reliable data on all of our sugarbushes in order to provide helpful guidance to ourselves and other sugarmakers on the best course of action to undertake.
We have seven distinct sugarbushes within a 10 mile radius that we gather sap from. The table below contains information on the number of taps, tubing system age, and the tubing/spout strategy that was used in 2011-13.
In order to gain an accurate count of the number of taps in each sugarbush, we also mapped and inventoried all of the tubing systems. This was necessary in order to develop accurate figures on the sap production per tap.
The sap from each sugarbush was collected in its own bulk tank. As it was pumped into the hauling truck for transport to the sugarhouse, we took readings on the totaling meter that the sap passed through. We also measured the sugar content of the sap and recorded the vacuum level at the pumphouse in order to ensure that all sugarbushes remained at the same high vacuum level. We generally maintain vacuum levels of 24-25” of Hg at the pump, and if the vacuum level ever fell below this target, we would go into the sugarbush to find and fix the leaks. We leave the vacuum pumps on whenever it is above freezing and don’t turn them off unless it has been below freezing for several hours and the sugarbushes are completely frozen.
Figures 1-3 display the running totals of sap production per tap at seven distinct sugarbushes for 2011-2013. Table 1 contains information on the year that the tubing system was put in, the number of taps it contains, the spout and dropline replacement strategy for each season, the gallons of sap collected per taphole for each year, and an economic analysis of the sap production figures for each sugarbush. For each year, the individual sugarbushes were compared to the top performing sugarbush during that season- we have included a column depicting the gallons of sap produced per taphole as a percentage of the sap produced by the best sugarbush for that season. We also kept track of the cost of materials and labor for replacing droplines or spouts. Using these data, we were able to determine the net profits of implementing a specific dropline or spout replacement as well as the potential profit we missed out on by not implementing the best strategy for that year.
2011 was an excellent season with nearly all of the tubing systems yielding at least 18 gallons of sap per tap with a maximum of 22 gallons/tap in two sugarbushes. The only system that didn’t perform well was the Hatchery, as that yielded just 14 gallons of sap per tap, only 63% the amount from the best performing sugarbushes. The Hatchery sugarbush was the only one to not include any type of modern techniques- we simply put a ‘sanitary spout extension’ on the end of an old dropline and spout, which had been considered a best practice until about 4 or 5 years ago. Based on other research, we expect that this would perform better than just an old spout and dropline, but it greatly underperformed any other strategies that included using check valves, new clear spouts, and/or dropline replacements. In this season, the two best performing sugarbushes had check-valve spout adapters on 1 year old droplines and new clear spouts on new droplines. Our experience with the Hatchery sugarbush provided solid evidence for us that simply using one of the old techniques is simply too expensive to implement. Considering that the Hatchery only produced 63% of the amount of sap from the top-performing sugarbush, we essentially missed out on $3.90 worth of syrup from each taphole as if we had put in a new spout and dropline. With over 3,000 taps in this sugarbush, the potential profits that we missed out on totaled over $12,000, which is more money than we received for the entire grant project. Since we used the Hatchery sugarbush this year as a ‘control’, it proved to be an expensive research project!
2012 was a difficult season for maple syrup production in northern NY and much of the northeast. The temperatures reached nearly 80OF for nearly a week in the middle of March, causing almost all of the taps in the region to quit well in advance of the normal ending time. Three of our sugarbushes stopped producing sap during this weather, yet four of them were able to continue producing sap into early April. In fact, the Hatchery sugarbush, which produced the lowest yields in 2011 when it just had the sanitary tip extensions, was completely renovated for 2012 and wound up producing the most sap per tap, surpassing all other sugarbushes in the last week of production. Other sugarbushes that continued to produce sap into April had either brand new droplines or 1 year old droplines with clear polycarbonate spouts. Although the Hatchery sugarbush produced the greatest yields, the net profit was actually the highest on the Recore sugarbush. We had replaced the droplines in the Recore sugarbush the year before, so the droplines were only 1 year old and we only had to spend $0.18 on a new clear spout compared to $1.53 for a new spout and dropline in the Hatchery sugarbush. Although Hatchery did produce an extra 2 gallons of sap, the fact that we spent less money in Recore made it slight more profitable by a margin of $0.35.
2013 wound up being another great year for syrup production. The season was interrupted with a long cold spell in March, yet relatively cool weather persisted throughout the month of April, leading to a long season of sap flow. One of the most interesting results was the tremendous output of the Southwoods sugarbush. As the name implies, Southwoods is on a south facing slope- it contains some of the healthiest trees that usually produce very well, yet the southfacing aspect makes is prone to warmups and hastens the taphole drying process. In 2011 and 2012, Southwoods performed relatively well with check-valve spout adapters on relatively old droplines, producing average results in 2011 and the second best results in 2012. For 2013, we replaced the droplines and used regular clear polycarbonate spouts. This resulted in a staggering increase in sap production, catapulting Southwoods to the front of the pack. However, we spent $1.52 to install new spouts and droplines in Southwoods yet we only spent $0.18 for a new clear spout in the Atwood sugarbush, since we had replaced the droplines there the previous year. Atwoods produced 2 gallons less sap than Southwoods, but since we invested much less time and money in the Atwood sugarbush, it wound up being more profitable than the Southwoods sugarbush by $0.35.
We have experienced very high yields each year since implementing new dropline and spout replacement. Even in 2012, which turned out to be a disastrous year for many producers due to record-breaking temperatures for a week in mid-March, several of our tubing system with new spouts and droplines continued to produce sap well into April. Other farmers have seen what we are doing and have adapted their practices accordingly. Although we don’t have any solid data on these trends, our equipment sales business has seen a very noticeable trend in customers purchasing new spouts every year as well as the tubing materials to replace their droplines. Whereas check-valve spout adapters had been very popular among producers in the past few years, our experiences have led many to switch to regular polycarbonate spouts. In fact, we are switching to all polycarbonate spouts for 2014.
Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary
Michael Farrell and Michael Parker have given presentations on our research at the NYS Maple Conference in Verona, NY in 2012 and at the Parker Family Maple Farm’s 1st Annual Open House in 2013. Michael Farrell wrote an article for The Maple News, the leading trade publication for the maple syrup industry that reaches over 7,000 producers throughout North America. In addition to these formal outreach efforts, members of the Parker Family Maple Farm, especially Michael Parker, have been sharing the results and advocating for spout and dropline replacement throughout the life of this project.
Our study was one of the only multi-year projects implemented at a commercial maple syrup producer’s farm to test different combinations of spout and dropline replacement. Sugarmakers often look to other sugarmakers, such as ourselves, to see what has worked well for them, when deciding what course to take for their own operations. We have been glad to serve as a research and demonstration site in order to provide a solid example of how making investments in new spout and dropline replacement can increase the overall yields and bottom line for sugarmakers. There is still more research to be done in determining how often droplines should be replaced and potential cleaning mechanisms to get the most out of a tubing system over time.
We are now replacing droplines on a regular basis, but we don’t yet know how often that should be. We will continue to records the amount of sap coming from each of our sugarbushes and try to determine if replacing droplines is necessary every year or if it can be done every 2-4 years. We know we’ll get a big boost in sap yield by replacing them every year, yet its not clear whether or not that will be a cost-effective strategy, given the high labor and material cost of doing so. We also need to determine more cost-effective ways to clean tubing and replace droplines in order to minimize the amount of time, money, and resources that is used to replace the droplines so often.