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Maine's Maple Syrup Producers Turn to New Technology
03/20/2013   Reported By: Jennifer Mitchell

The sap has been flowing for much of the month - just in time for Maine Maple Sunday this weekend. Some of the sweet, amber syrup is ready, and heading toward a pancake near you, same as it has for centuries. But like many aspects of Maine's agrarian culture, the maple industry has changed over the decades. No longer is it that simple rural ritual of buckets, sleds, and oxen. As Jennifer Mitchell reports, even Maine's vintage sugarhouses are embracing technology to stay competitive in a world that has changed.

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Maine's Maple Syrup Producers Turn to New Technolo Listen

Bob Moore of Dover-Foxcroft

Bob Moore of Bob's Sugarhouse in Dover-Foxcroft checks out some maple syrup in the making.

The sap just doesn't flow like it used to, say some of Maine's seasoned sugarmakers. The trees, they say, produced more back when Maine's winters were colder and snowier.

"Snow? Snow right to ya waist," says Bob Moore (above), of Bob's Sugarhouse in Dover-Foxcroft. "Everywhere, you had to make trails. Of course, then there were times you'd have a crust that would hold up a team of horses. You don't see that anymore."

Moore went out on his first snowy mission to collect the precious sap by hand 66 years ago, with a team of horses and a whole lot of buckets.

"I were 10 years old. I fell, and I spilled the sap I was carrying, and I was told that no matter what you do, you can fall and break your leg, but do not spill the sap," he says. "And that's just about the way I look at my pipelines. Nothing goes on the ground."

Today, the buckets are gone for commercial producers like Bob Moore. In their place is likely to be a complicated network of green plastic tubing, leading to a central piping system.

Lyle Merrifield of GorhamUsing a hose and vacuum system, says Lyle Merrifield (left), current president of the Maine Maple Producers' Association, means that producers can get sap out of a tree, even if it doesn't want to run. Half a century ago, the taps were metal and used year after year. Lead-soldered buckets would be dumped by hand, and the syrup cooked on wood-fired burners.

These days, single-use plastic splines have replaced the metal taps. They're designed to avoid fungal infections that can harm the tree. And many producers have begun to use reverse osmosis machines that speed up the process of making maple syrup by removing water. Watery sap that's just 2 percent sugar can be further concentrated, cutting production time in half.

"If you run it through this reverse osmosis machine and take it to 4 percent, you're going to make two gallons per hour. Just the time that saves!"

It also saves fuel. Making syrup is a time-consuming process. It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup, says Merrifield, which puts maple at a slight disadvantage in the syrup battle.

Audio from vintage pancake syrup commercial:

Announcer: "Woodsman! Now that you've tasted Aunt Jemima's brand new syrup, do you have any questions?"

Acadian woodsman character: "Yes! Aunt Jemima, what took you so long?!"

A consumer can take home any number of maple-ish flavored syrups for about 15 cents an ounce. Real maple costs about four times more. While Americans spend an average of $450 million each year on pancake toppings, the majority of what they buy is corn-based. And with strong competition within the maple industry from Vermont, New York and Canada, Maine producers must adapt in order to survive.

Bob Moore says even he has embraced new technology. "I fought using vacuum. I fought using reverse osmosis," he says. "But, as the market changes, you have to do it to be competitive. Research has shown more, better and efficient ways to care for the trees, better and efficient ways to extract the sap. And the whole industry is continually changing - for the better."

Photos by Jennifer Mitchell.


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