February 24, 2010

A handful of states probably come to mind when maple syrup production is mentioned. Odds are Kentucky isn't one of them. But in a region seeing an unprecedented, and often-detrimental increase in red maples in the wild, a University of Kentucky College of Agriculture professor sees a chance to "take lemons and make lemonade" or, in this case, syrup.

"You don't have to have pretty trees to make maple syrup. You just need to have trees that are producing maple sap," said Deborah Hill, professor in the UK Department of Forestry. "Given the amount of maple of one type or another that we have (in the state)... I think it has tremendous opportunity as a cottage industry."

Hill stood in the middle of Lee Blythe's sugar bush - a stand of sugar-yielding maple trees -- near Auburn in Logan County. Blythe is owner and general manager of Federal Grove, a restaurant and bed-and-breakfast situated on land that was originally part of a 10,000-acre land grant to Gen. Jonathan Clark for his service during the Revolutionary War. He was looking for something to add to his business, and the idea of maple syrup seemed to mesh with both his restaurant and the region's history. 

"The Shakers had another farm right over here in the early 1800s, 1810. They called it the Sugar Maple Farm, so this historically has been sugar maple country." Blythe chuckled, "We're all about history. We like food and history all wrapped together."

This is Blythe's first full-fledged season. He admits to not knowing much about the business when he tested his idea in 2009 with a small sap harvest that produced about 40 gallons of syrup.

"If I'd had to prepare very much, I wouldn't have done it. Better to not know. Ignorance is bliss," he said laughing.

His relative inexperience hasn't dampened his enthusiasm, however.

"We're learning as we go," he said and then continued talking about tubing between the taps-it needs to be blue and of food-grade quality- and hydrometers to measure the sugar content and drawing off the syrup from the evaporator, a piece of equipment he said "you have to watch like a baby, you really do."

Currently Blythe is tapping approximately 50 sugar maples on the Federal Grove property, but he's also worked out a deal with a neighbor that allows him to tap sugar maples on a nearby hillside. To date this year, he has about 500 taps and plans to have 850 before season's end. Trees can have up to four taps, depending on their size, with each tap giving about one gallon or more of sap per day. It typically takes 40 to 45 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.

Though Blythe is tapping sugar maples, red maples are good sources too. Sap from red maples has lower sugar content than sugar maples, but it is still feasible for syrup production.

Ambient temperature, with its relationship to air pressure, is the major factor in how fast sap flows through the taps. After a freezing night and a thawing day, the pressure on the tree's exterior is lower than its interior, creating a vacuum that draws sap out of the trunk. Too cold or too warm, and the vacuum essentially shuts down. The best sap draw requires frosty nights and days in the 30- to 50-degree range. And it's not just about quantity, it's also about quality. Around 60 degrees Fahrenheit, Hill said, sap's chemical composition changes, making it better for leaf output, but not for good-tasting syrup.

"We did a test tap last year, thinking maybe if this tree will give some, maybe they all will," Blythe said. "So we did a little bore and about three hours later we had a gallon of sap on a 55-degree day. So having the resource of maple that we do around here, we thought we might as well go ahead and try it."

Last year Blythe arranged with an Amish farmer in Allen County to make his syrup, but this year he's committed himself to the entire process from tree to store shelf. He remodeled a 150-year-old smokehouse to use as a sugarhouse. Inside, cords of firewood line the walls, a 350-gallon tank holds the newly collected sap and a stainless steel evaporator, heated by a wood fire, fills the air with fragrant clouds of steam as the sap boils down to its composite sugar. Once the fire is lit and the evaporator heats up, someone must be in constant attendance to prevent the sap from burning. 

It's a business that requires labor almost 24/7 for the six weeks in late winter when the sap runs. And it can be expensive, too. Blythe has just started accumulating equipment, but he's already thinking about the day when he can upgrade to a vacuum collection system. He currently uses a tubing system that relies on gravity to direct the sap from each tap downhill to a central location where it's collected and transported to the sugarhouse. A vacuum system could almost double his sap output, he said.

At the sugarhouse, Blythe looks forward to the day when he can upgrade to a reverse osmosis process, which would drastically reduce the time it takes to reduce the sap to syrup. But he would have to have a minimum of 1,000 taps to make such an investment pay, he said. That's why he is seriously considering setting up a cooperative to purchase sap from small operations scattered around the state.

"We feel like there's quite a bit of maple resource out there..." Blythe said. "I feel like there's a viable opportunity for some others to get into it as well."

Hill thinks the idea has legs - particularly for the hobbyist.

"If you can do it as a cooperative... I think it could work very well," she said. "That's why I see it as a cottage industry where you've got many people feeding into a central place that is boiling it down and producing the syrup and the bottles. But the person who is collecting the sap is getting their return on their work immediately. They're not waiting for it to turn into syrup; they just deliver the sap and get paid for it."

And though Kentucky has never been, nor probably ever will be at the forefront of maple production in this country, to the best of Hill's knowledge somebody somewhere in the state has always been producing maple syrup on some scale.

"I think probably in this state, somebody's been making maple syrup from the time when the Native Americans were here," she said.

Blythe, with his dream of marketing southern maple syrup throughout the South, thinks the time has come to build on that long history and put Kentucky's name on the list of well-known maple syrup producing states.

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Writer: Carol Spence, 859-257-8324

UK College of Agriculture, through its land-grant mission, reaches across the commonwealth with teaching, research and extension to enhance the lives of Kentuckians.

 

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