March 10, 2010

maple syrup makers

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— The Associated Press

Johnson Carr
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Johnson Carr

AP

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A newly-designed maple sugaring spout called a check valve spout is on display, Monday, Aug. 17, 2009, during a news conference at Progressive Plastics in Williamstown, Vt. The company says the new technology developed by the University of Vermont's Proctor Maple Research Center will revolutionize the maple sugaring industry by extending the sugaring season with the new spout, which prevents bacteria from entering the tree, thus slowing it's healing process which clogs the spouts. (AP Photo/Alden Pellett)

AP

WILLIAMSTOWN, Vt. — It's 2 inches tall, costs about 35 cents and looks like a tiny rocket ship.

But it has big potential: Scientists at the University of Vermont who developed a new maple spout adapter say it could revolutionize the syrup industry, extending the annual harvest by weeks and boosting sap yields by up to 90 percent per tree.

''This is one of the biggest leaps in tubing technology in a long, long time,'' said Bruce Bascom, a maple sugar maker in Alstead, N.H.

The tiny nylon device, which has been in development for two years and was unveiled publicly Monday, works with vacuum tubing systems used by most maple sugar producers by inhibiting the reverse flow of sap into trees that occurs when pumps are shut off or holes develop in the tubing.

Typically, when a vacuum system is shut off, the maple tree reflexively begins to suck sap back in from tubing, sometimes carrying bacteria. Once the tree detects them, it begins to wall off the tap hole, stopping sap production.

The new device was developed by Timothy Perkins, director of the University of Vermont Proctor Maple Research Center, in conjunction with maple industry supplier Leader Evaporator Co. It uses a valve -- a small ball that rolls to and fro in a chamber inside the spout -- to block backflow.

''By using a check valve in the system to prevent sap from moving backward into the tree, then the microorganisms don't get into the tap hole, the tap hole stays cleaner and the sap will continue running longer in the season,'' Perkins said.

Tests found that the tap hole ran for about a week to three weeks longer than usual and produced 50 to 90 percent more sap, he said.

Extending the normal six-week season by a few weeks may not be as lucrative as it sounds, though. Maple trees produce some of their sweetest sap at the beginning of the season, so increasing the amount of sap at the end of the season may not equate to big increases in syrup production, Bascom said.

It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make a gallon of maple syrup. Historically, maple sugar producers hung steel buckets on tree taps, and then carried the buckets to a sugarhouse to be boiled into syrup in giant stainless steel evaporators.

But since the 1960s, the development of vacuum tubing has mechanized the process and boosted sap yield, so most sugar makers do it that way.

According to U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, who attended a news conference announcing the new product Monday at Progressive Plastics Inc. in Williamstown, the manufacturer already has 1 million orders for the device, which has yet to be marketed except via word of mouth and a trade show.

Bascom, who has ordered 250,000 adapters and plans to use them on 75 percent of his own 60,000 taps next winter while selling the leftovers, said he's not sure that the production increase will reach 90 percent or even 50 percent per tree. But he sees the device as a promising development that could dramatically drive up U.S. production.

It might not happen right away, though, he says.

''Sometimes people hold back,'' Bascom said. ''They'll buy it in year two, after their neighbors have found out what's wrong with it.''

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