Photograph courtesy Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
Photograph courtesy Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
The Plate

High-Tech Tapping: Making Maple Syrup With Vacuums

At “sugaring-off” dinners, celebratory meals marking the close of maple syrup season, the air and your hair smell like maple syrup and guests leave with a high that has little to do with the amount of sugar consumed.

These dinners are early spring rites of passage, like Easter and Passover, but the religion is food. Sticky sugarmakers exhausted from working round the clock at the whim of the trees, finally relax to a meal. Some of this year’s dinners just ended weeks later than usual because of the season’s delay, with the late cold snap in northeastern North America where the syrup industry is located. (See “Geography in the News: Maple Syrup“)

Climate Change Messes With Maple Syrup

This year’s Polar Vortex, aka Bipolar Vortex, weather patterns plagued 2014’s maple syrup season, with the climate’s 70-degree February days followed by Tax-Day snowstorms. (Ironically, April 15 was also the date of this year’s Sugar Moon, the first full moon of spring). Maple sap runs only during early spring’s usual freeze-thaw cycle of warm days and freezing nights, which lasts for about four weeks. Since this year’s weather was less reliable, as weather is increasingly becoming due to climate change, sugarmakers like other farmers must address potentially dwindling yields.

Which is why at the sugaring offs, surely a glass will be raised to technology. Many farmers have started using a vacuum pressure tubing system that sucks sap out of the trees, rather than the traditional method of hanging a galvanized bucket on a tap and waiting for the tree to give it up.

The tubing links the trees together and runs to the sugar house, where the sap is collected and heated in large vats over a fire until it turns into syrup. No more horse-drawn sleighs through the woods to dump small buckets of sap into larger ones. Each tree yields more total sap per year with the new technology, without apparent harm to the tree or changing the flavor of the syrup.

Considering it takes about 43 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of maple syrup, most farmers find the system a significant improvement. Sugarmakers aren’t the first breed of farmer using technology to address global warming challenges, which affect all kinds of agriculture from Napa Valley grapes to Midwestern corn.

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Monitoring units like these attach directly to sap lines on trees and measure vacuum pressure. Photograph courtesy of Taptrack

And in a fine example of technology begetting technology, the vacuum-tubing app wasn’t far behind. In the days of buckets and taps (you know, five years ago?), farmers would love to know every time a sneaky squirrel upended a pail, leaving precious sap wastefully dripping into the snow. Canadian company Tap Track Technologies offers the equivalent knowledge using sensors, so when a farm uses vacuum technology it can also monitor through an app, receiving alerts when sap isn’t flowing from a particular tree, or a leak has sprung in the system. (See “No Nuts, No Problem: Squirrels Harvest Maple Syrup“)

Sacrificing Authenticity for Lower Prices

The recent federal farm bill’s support of the maple syrup industry doesn’t hurt either, with up to $20 million in state grants to support private landowners to open their trees to tapping. More money into industry development means more entrepreneurism isn’t far behind. And these days where there’s food entrepreneurism, technology is involved. (See “How Sugar Substitutes Stack Up“)

When I recently visited a sugarbush with my 6-year-old son, the farm used a vacuum tubing system to collect sap but left a couple of buckets up for kids to have the old-time experience. As he, wide-eyed, collected sap and ran it to the sugarhouse, I felt a pang of inauthenticity, that we were creating a Norman Rockwell moment rather than participating in the making of an artisanal product that has a sense of place.

I want the iconic version of a pail hanging under a spout, and the constant drip-drip-drip of the sap into the pail. But as we reached for the screen door to leave, the sugarmaker called after me with $2 – she had mischarged me. The price on my quart of syrup had gone down because their yield was better than years past.

This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month “Future of Food” series.