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Area maple producers tap into technology

  • John Lebeaux, Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources Commissioner, left, meets J.P. Welch, owner of Justamere Tree Farm in Worthington, during a series of visits last week by state agricultural officials to maple sugar houses in recognition of Maple Month. Gazette Staff/Sarah Crosby



For The Recorder
Monday, March 20, 2017

WORTHINGTON — Justamere Tree Farm may be outgrowing its name.

Marian and J.P. Welch, who own the 57-acre maple syrup-producing operation in Worthington, have plans for expansion. They are bullish on maple syrup.

“Right now, I think it’s a really great time to be in the maple world, because technology has helped us (and) demand for maple is increasing,” J.P. Welch said.

He said this not far away from the site of a planned production facility where he and Marian will bottle their syrup and expand capacity for value-added products they already produce, such as maple candies, cream, maple-flavored walnuts and pecans, maple sugar and granola.

The great New England sugar rush each March is nothing new. But coordinated state support and marketing pushes are making sugaring season more than just tradition — it is considered a rural economic development tool, supplementing farmer incomes and jolting rural economies each spring.

Last season, Massachusetts’ 250 sugarmakers churned out a record 77,000 gallons of maple syrup, according to the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association, which attributed the bump to early tree tapping and 5,000 more taps that helped meet the needs of a growing market.

Last week, John Lebeaux, the state’s agricultural commissioner, and Jason Wentworth, assistant agricultural commissioner, toured seven western Massachusetts maple farms to promote Maple Weekend this past Saturday and Sunday.

“The department is very active in supporting the maple industry,” Lebeaux told the Gazette at Justamere Tree Farm. The farm, which also sells Christmas trees, received a $40,000 grant from the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources in 2007 to expand its sugarbush, improve efficiencies and increase the amount of tree taps.

Along with the state support are marketing pushes spreading the word on different culinary uses and health benefits of maple syrup. The Massachusetts Maple Producers Association also disseminates technological news to producers.

“We just try to bring everybody’s skill level up a little bit higher and everybody’s profit level up a little higher,” said Howard Boyden, a Conway producer who sits on the association’s board of directors.

New efficiencies

Boyden, of Boyden Bros. Maple, says maple runs in his blood. He has been collecting sap buckets since he was a kid.

This year, Boyden, his wife Jeanne and other family members replaced five-sixteenths-inch blue tubing on one of their maple stands with three-sixteenths-inch tubing. The narrower tubing snaking downhill acts as a natural vacuum, which has helped the Boydens double sap production where it is installed, Boyden said.

“This was a great experiment for me and next year I’m going to be headed to the woods with lots of three-sixteenths tubing,” Boyden said. “The manufacturers just started producing it three years ago.”

Timothy Perkins, director of the Proctor Maple Research Center at the University of Vermont, said the center researched the narrower tubing several years ago and the technology has boosted production for smaller operations that may have lacked mechanical pumps.

“The largest commercial producers tend to use pumps to generate this vacuum,” Perkins said. For smaller producers, “if you make the tubing smaller by running liquid downhill,” he said, “it will generate its own vacuum.”

He said vacuuming and an emphasis on sanitized taps are two innovations that have increased production.

“The two key things for high production are excellent sanitation and high vacuum,” Perkins said.

At the Welches’ property in Worthington, upgrades to their reverse osmosis system — which takes water out of maple sap before it is boiled — and a forced-draft energy-efficient evaporator equal efficiency.

Output has increased in the last decade, from three to five gallons of syrup to about 30 to 35 gallons per hour, per boil.

“Now, if we aren’t making 30 gallons an hour, Marian gets impatient,” Welch said, adding that he also uses much less wood. “Of course, that comes at a price. That equipment doesn’t come cheap.”

Newer methods also buoy production at a time when climate change makes weather conditions during sugaring season less certain.

“So far, we’ve been able to deal with the climate change that’s happened,” Perkins said. “What happens in the next 50 to 100 years is more difficult to predict.”

That said, the industry is “certainly evolving, growing,” said Michael Farrell, an industry analyst from New York and author of “The Sugarmaker’s Companion: An Integrated Approach to Producing Maple Syrup from Maple, Birch and Walnut Trees.”

“Technology is one of the main drivers — the vacuum tubing systems that can collect so much more sap, and then the ROs (reverse osmosis systems) and evaporators that process much more efficiently and effectively — that’s what’s allowed people to collect and process a lot more sap and make a lot more syrup at a lower cost,” he said.

“It can be profitable and grow the industry,” Farrell added.

At the same time, there are untouched maple stands and, thus, untapped potential.

“There is still a huge resource that is not being utilized,” he said.

Massachusetts

Massachusetts is still a net-importer of maple syrup, meaning the state consumes more than it produces. And the state is eighth among 11 main maple producing states, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics.

But community supported agriculture is big in Massachusetts, meaning producers tend to sell directly to consumers, building a network of dedicated and loyal customers.

The Boyden and Welch families produce a suite of sweets, from maple candies to maple cream.

Boyden and western Massachusetts producers have devoted customers, he said, and customers expect high-quality syrup.

“I had a gentleman walk in this afternoon who knew exactly what he wanted, pulled two gallons off the shelf and shelled out the cash for it and said ‘Hi, and when you see your cousin Ron say hi,’” Boyden said. “And off he went.”