Goodbye sugar bush, hello maple syrup farm?

Traditional work in a traditional sugar bush. Photo: Some rights reserved.

Traditional work in a traditional sugar bush. Photo: Some rights reserved.

When I first moved to the North Country and became immersed in maple syrup culture, I was taught a few things. A nice healthy stand of sugar maples is a beautiful thing, and it's called, of course, a "sugar bush". The thickest, oldest trees produce the most sap. You can safely put 3 or 4 taps in a mature tree, just one or two in a skinnier, younger one.

Well, new research is challenging all the assumptions about maple syrup production. In an interview on NPR, Vermont syrup producer Laura Sorkin talked about a study from UVM's Proctor Maple Research Lab where researchers lopped the tops off maple saplings to challenge the common wisdom that the moisture for the sap comes from the tree's crown.

The small trees produced large amounts of sap, proving you don't need old trees to make syrup.

"It had never occurred to anyone," Sorkin says. "It's just always been done this way."

The discovery means sugar makers could plant dense rows of saplings and harvest the sap, essentially creating a maple sugar farm.

"Aside from harvesting fish from the sea, pretty much everything else that we eat comes from neatly planted, nicely managed row crops grown in fields," Sorkin says. "Maple syrup, on the other hand, is something we head off into the wild forest to get. Vermonters, I think, would be very reluctant to give that up."

In Modern Farmer, Sorkin elaborates that this discovery could change the way – and the place where – the golden liquid is produced:

In a natural forest, which varies in maple density, an average 60 to 100 taps per acre will yield 40 to 50 gallons of syrup. According to the researchers’ calculations, an acre of what is now called “the plantation method” could sustain 5,800 saplings with taps yielding 400 gallons of syrup per acre. If the method is realized, producing maple syrup on a commercial scale may no longer be restricted to those with forest land; it could require just 50 acres of arable land instead of 500 acres of forest. Furthermore, any region with the right climate for growing maples would be able to start up maple “farms”. The natural forest would become redundant.

Ouch. The beloved sugar bush becoming redundant? I'll believe it when I see it.

In the meanwhile, I can't wait to get out into the woods next month, trudging through that end-of-the-season granular sugar snow, and tap some mighty, healthy maples.

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  1. And we could just plant corn, make corn syrup and add test tube maple flavoring too. Progress!

  2. When I make maple syrup there is always a cloudy mass inside the jar. What is this? I only use it for our family but need to know if it is alright with this in it. I was told it is called maple dirt. Is this correct? Kind of new at this but love the homemade syrup.