by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

If you would like to add making maple syrup as part of your agricultural business, it’s vital to assess the health of your forest. New York State Extension Forester Peter Smallidge presented “Evaluating the Potential of a Site for the Commercial Production of Maple Sap” as a recent webinar hosted by Cornell Cooperative Extension and the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

“What comes out of the sugarbush is sap, so we’re ultimately producing sap of the optimal quality, hopefully,” Smallidge said.

He said calling an area being tapped for sap a “forest stand” is helpful as a management unit, much like an agricultural field. Though different in a few ways, these measurements help operators evaluate and quantify what they’re producing and the needs of each area on their farm.

“We’re not evaluating a tree; it’s bigger than a tree,” Smallidge said. “And it’s not the entire property. It’s a ‘stand.’”

Each managed forest stand has different histories and opportunities.

“They tend to be bigger than gardens – several acres to hundreds of acres,” Smallidge said. “They don’t have to be uniform or homogenous. They can have unusual features and wet spots and dry spots.”

He thinks assessments are important because they help farmers “look before you leap.” Assessments also help producers compare different stands on their property or leased property for a commercial operation.

A producer should evaluate the tapping density, as sufficient tapping makes for efficient tapping with 40 to 80 taps per acre. Smallidge also advised producers to learn more about point sampling in forestry by searching for the topic on YouTube.

“That’s probably a half hour lecture to give just an overview of using an angle gauge, but it’s a very simple process,” Smallidge said.

The angle gauge or a prism can help producers count the number of trees and sort them by diameter class at several points. This can help determine the number of taps per acre of stand.

“Count the trees larger than six to 10 inches in diameter to think about the future trees to tap,” Smallidge said. “If you have smaller trees you can thin and they’ll grow faster; if you don’t thin, you’ll have to wait longer for them to grow to minimum size.”

Producers should also consider the soil type and the amount of sunlight. “They determine the growth rate of the trees,” he said.

Trees with slow growth are low in vigor and are more vulnerable than those growing well. Tree growth rate determines sap and sugar output.

If the tree species isn’t well suited to the soil type, the trees will perform poorly. For further information, Smallidge recommended searching online for “Cornell forest woodlot soil” and “web soil survey.”

He added that it can be difficult to change soil types except through adding lime. Improving drainage can also be problematic.

“Red maple is more tolerant of poor soil drainage than sugar maple,” he said.

Look up to further evaluate tree health. Smallidge said the crown or top of the trees should be “full with fine branches and no upper dieback.” Also look for scars and structural integrity in the trunks.

“We need to see if there’s anything about the tree that might make me think there’s disease progression into the roots of the tree,” Smallidge said.

Trees with “prior logging damage like a bump” may mean that “the tree can’t heal because of decay organisms moving into the root system. That’s not a problem until there’s another stress event. When trees get double or triple stress events, that’s when problems occur.”

To become profitable at sugar making, producers should plan access to the sugarbush and any sap collection reservoirs.

“How easy is it to get that sap from the collection tank to the sugar house?” Smallidge asked. “If you’re traveling across a neighbor’s property, have either a legal or personal relationship that allows you to travel across that property.”

It makes sense for producers to construct a road to their sugarbush.

“Look at this as a long-term investment,” Smallidge said. “I’m not saying you have to build a super highway or an interstate, but there are going to be some things that will cost you a little bit more money but you’ll be using this for decades. If you put it in the right spot and build it correctly and keep it maintained, it will be a long-term asset.” It also adds value to your land when you sell it or bequeath it someday.

An appropriate surface covering, broad based dips and open-top culverts can help, as can “corduroy roads,” areas where saplings or slightly larger poles cover the pathway to generate better traction and reduce washouts.

If your system uses electricity for equipment like a vacuum pump, reverse osmosis or filter press, you’ll need either hardwired electricity or a generator. If it’s a gravity system, you may not need electricity.

Producers need to plan steepness to keep sap flowing. Three to 15% is acceptable for tubing. “It’s less than that for bucket systems, especially if you have to carry the buckets,” Smallidge said. “For a tubing system, it’s advantageous to have some slope to keep the sap moving.”

He also advised producers to look at the sunlight needs of their stands, since sunlight determines photosynthesis, photosynthesis determines sugar production, tree volume determines sap volume and sap volume determines syrup production efficiency.

Smallidge said contacting a DEC forester can help gauge stocking density as appropriate or if remediation is needed. Clearing associated vegetation can help producers more easily access trees for sugaring.

“These are very significant problems and can take all the fun out of managing your sugarbush,” Smallidge said.

He said that can offer tips on thinning underbrush. “You might need to do some thinning in the overstory,” he added.