EAST MONTPELIER, Vt. — The rich, sweet tang of sap being boiled into maple syrup greeted tourists at Burr Morse’s sugar shack in East Montpelier this month, a spectacle made sweeter by the sight of Morse, every inch the rural maple-syrup farmer in syrup-stained jacket, stirring the steaming evaporator with an old-fashioned dipper.
“People want to have a nostalgia trip,” said Morse, 65, a seventh-generation maple-syrup farmer and the patriarch of Morse Farm Maple Sugarworks. “They want to see something natural, like taking sap from a tree.”
Forty years ago, Morse would snowshoe into the forest with his father to collect sap from galvanized buckets and load them onto a tractor. The farm has not changed much since then, but the winters have. So has the maple-syrup ritual.
Scientists say the tapping season — the narrow window of freezing nights and daytime temperatures of more than 40 degrees needed to convert starch to sugar and get sap flowing — is on average five days shorter than it was 50 years ago. But technology developed in the past decade offers maple farmers such as Morse a way to offset the effects of climate change with high-tech tactics that are far from natural.
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Today, five miles of pressurized blue tubing spider-webs down the hillside at Morse Farm, pulling sap from thousands of trees and spitting it into tubs. Modern vacuum pumps help producers pull in twice as much sap as before. “You can make it run when nature wouldn’t have it run,” Morse said.
His greatest secret weapon is a reverse-osmosis machine that concentrates the sap by pulling it through sensitive membranes, greatly increasing the sugar content before it hits the boiler. The $8,000 instrumentsaves more fuel and money than every other innovation combined. With it Morse can process sap into syrup in 30 minutes, something that used to take two hours.
The biggest U.S. maple farmers have expanded production acreage and are tapping more trees than ever. The total was 5.5 million taps last year, compared with slightly more than 4 million taps 10 years earlier. The new technology helped push U.S. maple-syrup production to a new high in 2011.
The changes have drawn questions about sustainability, however. Purists criticize the “techno-syrup” trend, saying it alters syrup’s rustic flavor and sucks the life out of maple trees.
They’re wrong on both counts, says Timothy Perkins, who directs the Proctor Maple Research Center in Underhill, Vt., the world’s foremost academic center for the study of maple and maple syrup. “It’s pretty darn hard to kill a tree by overtapping it — we’ve tried,” Perkins said.
As for taste, chemical analyses of maple syrup processed with and without reverse osmosis concluded some flavor compounds had been affected. But when the center conducted an evaluation with a panel of top maple-syrup tasters, no one could tell the difference.
Meanwhile, Morse keeps a couple of “pet buckets” — old-fashioned metal ones — on trees to show tourists how it used to be done. He also burns wood chips instead of oil to power the evaporator, his only other concession to the past.
“It keeps our image intact,” he said.