Sycamore Syrup: Generating Farm Income and Protecting Riparian Zones in West Virginia

Progress report for ONE21-404

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2021: $29,996.00
Projected End Date: 06/30/2023
Grant Recipient: Future Generations University
Region: Northeast
State: West Virginia
Project Leader:
Dr. Michael Rechlin
Future Generations University
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Project Information

Project Objectives:
  1. This project seeks to discover the proper time to tap American Sycamore (Plantanus occidentalis) trees to maximize the volume and sweetness of the sap collected. This will allow farmers to increase yield and quality of this specialty crop and thereby increase potential sales.
  2. This project seeks to determine the optimal level of vacuum that should be applied to sap lines in order to maximize sap flow. Answering this question will allow farmers to develop superior sap collection strategies that improve the reliability of this crop.
  3. This project will test the efficacy of sap collection spouts specifically designed for walnut trees in a previous NR SARE project (ONE19-347) on Sycamore sap collection. It will be designed to reduce sap leakage and increase yield, thus increasing the amount of syrup farmers can process and sell from their sycamore tapping operations.
Introduction:

Vegetated riparian zones provide essential ecosystem services, such as erosion control, stream bank stabilization, water pollution mitigation, flood control, and critical wildlife habitat (Gregory, et. al., 1991). However, regulations protecting these streamside regions are often looked at as a loss for farmers and woodland owners. These typically established protected zones prohibit clearing for crops or pasture, limit timber harvesting, and, at times, place restrictions on livestock grazing. A dominant species of many riparian areas is American sycamore (Platanus occidentallis); it is often referred to as a “trash species'' for its low timber value (Wells & Schmidtling, 2003).

 

This project proposes to take this “trash species” and turn it into a “treasure,” making riparian zone protection not a loss, but a new source of farm income. Historically, as farmers up north tapped maple trees for sugar, Appalachian farmers tapped sycamores in addition to their maples. As a diffuse porous hardwood, sycamore trees pressurize their xylem in the spring, and when tapped exude a sweet sap (Rechlin, 2016). Just as the maple syrup industry is a mainstay of many farm economies of the north, sycamore syrup production could become an important source of farm incomes within it’s more southerly range, extending through Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and West Virginia (McAlpine & Applefield, 1973). West Virginia, alone, has 9.6 million sycamore trees of tappable size, and these four states combined have 13.4 million trees (USDA Forest Service, 2021).

 

Specialty syrups are gaining an increasing market share in the local food economy. Bourbon barrel-aged maple syrup as well as maple syrup infused with everything from coffee to lavender are in high demand, bringing up to three times the sale price of plain maple syrup. The bulk price of walnut syrup is presently $275/gallon as opposed to $26/gallon for maple syrup. New Leaf Tree Syrups (https://newleaftreesyrups.com/) has a standing offer to purchase sycamore syrup at that same $275/gallon price. The problem, however, is that there is none on the market. With this price per gallon and the gallons per tree and sugar content data the Future Generations University research team has collected over the past three years, the estimated value of sycamore syrup that could be produced in West Virginia is 227.7 million dollars per year if all sycamores were used to their syrup potential.

This project will do the research and extension necessary to solve that problem. The objectives and hypotheses posed in this proposal will develop the tapping practices needed to turn the historic Appalachian practice of making sycamore syrup into a valuable new agricultural commodity. By tapping the “treasure” of riparian zones, it will provide a direct economic benefit to farmers from buffer zone protection. 

Cooperators

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Research

Materials and methods:

In partnership with four collaborating farmers, Future Generations University will be conducting research and field-testing practices to maximize sap flow from sycamore trees. At the University’s sycamore research site, the team will continue to grow the data set for sycamore tree tapping and sap collection practices. This site was established for sycamore sap research in 2018 and data was collected in the 2018, 2019, and 2021 sap/syrup seasons. Initially, tapping and sap collection practices used in maple and walnut syrup operations were adapted to the unique physiological characteristics of sycamore and the ecological characteristics of sycamore’s riparian habitat. This preliminary data collection has defined the research methodology to be used with partner farmers during this expanded site phase of research. 

 

Year 1. (2021 - 2022 sapflow season) 

Partner farmer study sites

  1. Partner farmers will be provided with the materials necessary to set up a sycamore two sap collection systems. These include: sap bag taps, bag holders, and bags as well as sap collection tubing and standard maple spouts, a diaphragm vacuum pump, pump controller, and a sap storage tank. They will also be provided with a volumetric measure, and a digital refractometer to measure sap flow and sap sweetness.
  2. Technical on-site support in setting up their study site will be provided by Future Generations University researcher, Kate Fotos, to assure uniformity at all four field/partner farmer sites. In addition to setting up the tubbing and sap collection system, each tree’s diameter will be measured, its basal area calculated, and its position in the riparian zone GPS mapped. A WeatherStation will also be installed at each research site.
  3. Partner farmers will be responsible for collecting data on sap volume, by observing volume in the sap collection tank, and sweetness, using the digital refractometer. Sap data as well as weather data will be reported weekly. This will allow our University researcher to monitor conditions at each study site during the time of data collection.

 

Future Generations University research site:

  1. Related to Objective #1. The University research site will be used to test the hypothesis that Sycamore has two distinct sap flow seasons. It will be monitor stem pressure buildup in sycamore trees. It has been hypothesized that a fall sap flow season may occur, and that it may result in more profuse sap flow than the winter season due a combination of stem pressure and root pressure. The University research team plans on conducting a fall tapping as well as time lapse photo monitoring of gauge readings to test this hypothesis.
  2. Related to Objectives #2. During the “normal” winter/spring sap flow season, the University’s research trees will be tapped and the sap collected in a similar way to that of the partnering farmers. However, at the University site two parallel sap collection lines and two spouts will be installed in each tree; one spout feeding into each line. Sap from each line will be collected using two distinct pumps. This system will allow us to vary the vacuum level separately on the two lines as the research team investigates the optimal level of vacuum for sap extraction from sycamore trees.
  3. Data on sap flow volume and sweetness will be collected and recorded using similar methodologies to that of the partner farmer sites.
  4. Additionally, with private foundation funding, the University propose to work with Marshall University to chemically profile sycamore sap and syrup. Although not formally part of this proposal or to be funded through this grant, this chemical analysis, particularly looking at the type of sugars, will help dictate sap evaporation processes, and augment the knowledge base that will be needed to bring sycamore sap production to scale and expand the commercialization of this new agricultural product. 

 

Year 2. (2022-2023 sap flow season)

Partnering farmer study sites

  1. During the second year of the study partner farmers will adapt the maple tapping procedures used in year 1 to the sap collection optimization knowledge generated through the University’s year 1 studies of tap timing, of sap flow, and optimal level of vacuum. 
  2. Data collection and reporting will be the same as the first year, allowing us to document at multiple sites any production changes.
  3. During the second year of the study partner farmer sites will become extension centers to disseminate knowledge of sycamore sap flow and syrup production. Experience from the University’s preliminary studies shows that tapping sycamore trees creates a lot of interest. Passersby cannot help but to stop and look. These observations are often followed by the comment “I think you tapped the wrong trees; those aren’t maples.” 

 

FGU Research Site

  1. During the second year of the grant, Objective 3 will be the focus of research at the University’s sycamore site. Sycamore wood is less dense than maple. We have learned in our walnut sap flow research that maximizing sap flow in less dense species also requires different tapping procedures. In an earlier Northeast SARE grant (ONE19-347), we developed a sap spout and tapping procedures for walnut trees that increased sap flow by 83 percent on average (Rechlin, et. al., 2020). Working with the West Virginia Department of Agriculture and Marshall University’s Robert C. Byrd Institute for Advanced Manufacturing, we plan on having these walnut spouts manufactured and out for testing the first year of this project. In this second grant year, we plan on testing the efficacy of the new spouts on Sycamore, while at the same time developing tapping procedures specific to this new species.
  2. The University’s study site will also be repeating the successful research of the first year on vacuum and timing of tapping, adding validity to any findings. 
  3. In addition, the University intends to organize a sycamore syrup production workshop, including tastings, at the research site.

 

Research results and discussion:

The project began in late summer with the development of a detailed work plan for the fall through sap season. These plans included scheduling wood lot assessments, ordering equipment for each partner site and the University research site. 

Six sycamore trees were tapped in November 2021 at the Future Generations University Sycamore Research Site and collection was set up using sap bags (rather than collection tubing lines). There were several small sap runs when the temperatures fluctuated appropriately, however the sugar content in the sap collected was negligible. Weather data also shows that it was an especially warm fall and early winter which may have impacted the both the quantity of sap collected in the limited runs as well as any potential for measurable sugar content. 

In late October, the specific sycamore stand analysis (collecting DBH, GPS Location, etc) for each tree to be tapped. All of the required equipment, including site-specific needs such as solar power for pump setups, was ordered and during the months of November and December, equipment was delivered and set up with partner farmers. 

 

Participation Summary
3 Farmers participating in research

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

4 Consultations
2 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools

Participation Summary:

4 Farmers
Education/outreach description:

Outreach and dissemination of the project’s research findings will correspond to three separate audiences. First, will be current maple producers in West Virginia and the surrounding states whom have historically expressed great interest in learning more about the economic viability of sycamore to diversify their existing business. West Virginia is fortunate to have the West Virginia Maple Syrup Producers Association, which Future Generations regularly partners, as a means of getting the word out on outreach activities through their website (www.WVMSPA.org) and semi-annual newsletters. The University also works closely with Ohio State University and Penn State University as well as their respective Producer Associations.

 

The second primary audience will be farmers and riparian landowners, primarily in West Virginia, but also extending in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Ohio through their respective Agricultural Extension Agencies. Partner farmers will be encouraged to host on-farm demonstrations and participate in maple related agri-tourism events such as Mountain State Maple Days (www.wvmspa.org/mountain-state-maple-days). Tapping sycamore trees generates interest and creating an opportunity for public education through on farm demonstrations and local media coverage (Stinson, 2019).

As soon as sycamore trees are tapped at the partner farmers’ locations, a similar level of local interest will be generated. More formally, during the second year of the project, The University will provide each partner farmer with research data and information to disseminate as occasion arises. Each partner farmer will become the local sycamore syrup expert. Farmers will be encouraged and supported by the University to partner with local educational organizations, attract local media attention, and educating consumers at retail locations such as farmers markets.

 

The final audience will be the national tree syrup making community at large. A recent article in the Union Leader drew wide attention and interest nationally. Future Generations University’s international webinar series “Out of the Woods”, which currently has over 320 subscribers, will feature a session on presenting the findings from this study. Further opportunities to publish research results will also be pursued in The Maple News, The Maple Syrup Digest, and various state Agricultural bulletins within the Northeast SARE region.

 

The Southern Syrup Research Symposium, scheduled for September 25, 2021 in Morgantown West Virginia will provide a first chance to present to other producers about this project and the opportunity to tap sycamore trees. Future Generations University is on the program to talk about tapping alternative species. There is also a plan to have a display at the November 2021 Lake Erie Maple Expo with opportunities to return as part of an outreach program in subsequent years.

 

The planned Southern Syrup Research Symposium was held online in January 2022 as a Acer Research Round Table because of limitations due to COVID-19. Additionally, the Future Generations University participation in the 2021 Lake Erie Maple Expo was limited but the field research team did share display space with the West Virginia Maple Syrup Producers' Association, and as a result, there were o number of sidebar conversations introducing maple syrup producers in the greater region to the potential for sycamore syrup production. 

 

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.