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Cornell Maple Program Opens New Research Lab

NYS Ag and Markets give $500K in Feb. 2020, to create state-of-the-art maple laboratory, replacing the antiquated 920 sq ft sugarhouse with a 4,000 sq ft facility with enhanced research capacity and a certified kitchen - to have major positive impact for the state's thriving maple industry.
Jason Koski/Cornell University
NYS Ag and Markets give $500K in Feb. 2020, to create state-of-the-art maple laboratory, replacing the antiquated 920 sq ft sugarhouse with a 4,000 sq ft facility with enhanced research capacity and a certified kitchen - to have major positive impact for the state's thriving maple industry.

The Cornell Maple Program recently opened a new lab and sugar house designed to help advance research for New York’s growing maple industry. The U.S. Agriculture Department has valued the state’s 2020 syrup sales at $30 million. The lab was built with $500,000 from New York State and $150,000 from the Appalachian Regional Commission. WAMC’s Jim Levulis spoke with Aaron Wightman, co-director of the Cornell Maple Program and co-host of the maple-themed podcast Sweet Talk.

Wightman: The mission of the program is to keep the maple industry growing and profitable. And we do that in order to create opportunity for upstate New York. And with the decline of certain other agribusiness sectors, this is an important new opportunity. So we're trying to maximize that for landowners. And we do that through three main prongs of research right now. And one is to keep forests healthy, and to increase sap yield, because that's the raw material that we use to make our syrup. Another is increasing process efficiency, so that we can safely make high-quality products. And the last is making new products so that we can open new market sectors to maple. And this new facility gives us the capability to enhance our research in all those categories.

Levulis: And can you describe some of the physical upgrades at this new sugar house? I understand it's 4,200 square feet.

Wightman: That's right. Our former sugar house was built in the 1950s, it was less than 1,000 square feet. And we had really maximize the capacity that we had there both just in space, also for safety. And in terms of infrastructure, so we didn't have enough electricity or plumbing to really suit our needs. The new facility, 4,000 square feet, we upgraded to 400 amp electric service, modern plumbing. It's a well-lit, safe working environment with plenty of space. And then we received a separate grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission to purchase all new equipment for the lab. And what we've done is we've purchased identical redundant systems. So maple syrup is processed by concentrating sap through reverse osmosis and then boiling it in an evaporator. So we have two identical systems for that so that we can do experiments with one system serving as the control system, and the other serving as the experimental treatment. And that way, we can test a lot of new methods for processing sap more efficiently and also improving quality.

NYS Ag and Markets give $500K in Feb. 2020, to create state-of-the-art maple laboratory, replacing the antiquated 920 sq ft sugarhouse with a 4,000 sq ft facility with enhanced research capacity and a certified kitchen - to have major positive impact for the state's thriving maple industry.
NYS Ag and Markets give $500K in Feb. 2020, to create state-of-the-art maple laboratory, replacing the antiquated 920 sq ft sugarhouse with a 4,000 sq ft facility with enhanced research capacity and a certified kitchen - to have major positive impact for the state's thriving maple industry.

Levulis: And also to build upon that, what will this new center allow the Cornell Maple Program to do in terms of production? I mean, you have a pretty large sugarbush out there.

Wightman: That's right, we have a 7,800 tap sugarbush. We have the capacity to go a lot higher. In terms of numbers of taps, we only use about 300 acres of our forest for maple production right now. But the whole forest is over 4,000 acres in size. So we could substantially increase our size if we wanted to. But right now we're really at the scale we want to be at for commercial scale tests. A lot of sugar bushes in New York state are moving up into the 5,000 to 10,000 tap range. So we want to be able to replicate those scale systems and solve the problems that are relevant to producers of that size. But with the system we have right now we could make anywhere from 2,000 to 3,000 gallons of syrup easily during a season.

Levulis: And if I understand correctly, it's not just the syrup that ends up on your pancakes or waffles really the maple industry encompasses a lot of products. And it's expanding, right?

Wightman: That's true for a lot of years, maple syrup was used just to sell as a pancake topping or to put on ice cream. And there are a few other traditional value added products that were made like maple cream and maple candy. But as a sugar source and as a flavor source, it really has the potential to be used in a whole wide variety of other products. And right now with the current kind of market trends where people are looking for sustainable and local and naturally produced things, maple really checks all those boxes. So there's a lot of potential for growth. So some of the things we're looking at are developing guidelines for best practices for, for instance, brewing beer with maple to create better flavor, or just use the sugars in the maple as a source of alcohol because they're what's fermented during those processes. We're also looking at other confections like chocolate, looking at beverages like sodas, kombucha, and even bath and beauty products like soap and lip balm. So there's a whole wide variety of other products we could be making. One of the obstacles for that is that maple businesses tend to be somewhat small. They’re family farm businesses a lot of times and they don't have the capacity to do research and development necessarily. So if we do some of the initial research and development at Cornell, we can take risks, we have access to all the facilities at Cornell for tests, and verifying the safety of processes. And then if we share that information, and we've crossed some of those initial barriers to new product development, then that enables small businesses like maple farms to then adopt the guidance that we've put out there and develop new products.

Levulis: And now there are concerns about how climate change might impact other crops and natural resources. Are there similar concerns when it comes to the production of maple syrup?

Wightman: Yes, climate change is really a concern for the maple industry and for I would say two different reasons. And one is that we rely on very specific weather conditions, which are created by climate, to produce sap. So maple trees need periods of freeze followed by thaws during the dormant season to induce sap flow in the trees. And the timing of that had been pretty reliable for a long time. People tended to tap their maple trees in February and then produce the bulk of their syrup in late February and March. But with climate change, our season is really highly variable. Sometimes the best sugaring weather is in December. Other times it's in March or April. And in order to adapt to that, we have to come up with new technologies that allow us to keep our tap holes productive longer, because when you tap a tree, the hole is only productive for a short period of time. So we've had to come up with methods to make the tap hole stay productive for a longer period of time. So that's something that climate change has done that's created complications for our industry, and we've really had to adapt to it. The longer term concern is what is this going to do to our maple trees health and productivity wise. And a lot of the models suggest that sugar maple will retreat northward, its range will shrink, so that the southern parts of its range right now won't be able to survive in that zone. But red maples are more adaptable. And we can make maple syrup from red maples too. And they seem to be adaptable to the conditions that climate change is likely to create. But that's a really simplistic analysis. There's so many variables at play. So it's going to be a challenge.

Levulis: And I guess in that regional conversation, how does that impact the Northeast maple industry? New York and Vermont, obviously two of the leaders there.

Wightman: It seems like with the short-term models, and we'll say for the next 50 to 100 years, we'll probably be okay as far as temperature increases, impacting the range that sugar maples and red maples can grow in. So I think we're in the sweet zone, the goldilocks zone for now. But there are a lot of other variables like extreme weather events, the impact of warmer weather on forest pests, so things like forest tent caterpillars and gypsy moths might be more active with warmer weather. It's really hard to tell how those variables will play out.

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org