ATTICA, N.Y. (AP) – Over the last few hundred years, many a sweet tooth has been satisfied by the arduous process of draining the sap from maple trees and cooking it down to its sweetest, syrupy form.

Those basics of making maple syrup haven’t changed over time, and won’t.

But maple producers who will open their farms to the public today and Sunday for the annual Maple Weekend will demonstrate a balance of tradition and technology that melds the past with the future.

At Merle Maple Farm in western New York’s Tonawanda Valley, where streams run crystal clear through forests of maples, steam rising from the sugar house has become a less constant sight as owner Lyle Merle has embraced industry advances.

A spider web of thin tubing strung tree-to-tree vacuums sap from taps, on a good day (a warm one following a frosty night) enough to fill a two-story holding tank. The system has replaced the tin buckets that dangled from tree trunks to be emptied by hand.

In the sugar house, two “reverse osmosis” machines pull water from the sap and concentrate the sugar. Ultraviolet lights kill the bacteria. The changes mean Merle, these days, boils seven to eight hours a day, down from 16 to 20 hours, saving not only time but costly fuel.

It still takes 43 gallons of sap to produce a single gallon of syrup. But even that could change, when the “sweeter” trees growing on Merle’s land become mature enough to tap. This relatively young breed of trees produces sap twice as sugary as the monstrous old-timers, meaning only about 22 gallons will be needed for a gallon of syrup.

Merle is among the original Maple Weekend participants, intent as much on educating the public as pushing New York to the No. 1 spot among the country’s maple syrup producers. It’s now third, behind Vermont and Maine, with $7.19 million in sales in 2004.

“You get people who say they thought (syrup) came from the tree just like it comes in the bottles,” the fourth-generation farmer said this week in his busy sugar room, where his 91-year-old mother, Florence, was canning syrup as his wife, Dottie, mixed maple cream and fixed chili with maple syrup for the weekend festivities.

The Merles have about 1,600 taps, ranking them among the largest operations.

“For people to appreciate why maple products are expensive, they need to understand what it takes to make them,” Dottie Merle said.

She strengthens her case by noting maple syrup is fat-free and full of calcium and potassium, unlike its corn syrup-based supermarket rivals. “But it’s still sugar,” she adds with a laugh.

Dr. Brian Chabot sees the potential in the state’s maple industry from his post as director of the Cornell Maple Program at Cornell University. He does not discount Merle’s prediction that New York could be maple syrup leader in a decade.

“New York is a big state. We have a lot of maple trees, more than other places,” Chabot said, referring to estimates that place the number of maples in the billions, with only a tiny percentage, less than 1.5 million, being tapped.

At the same time, New York consumers are hungry for maple, importing the vast majority of maple products consumed, much of them from world maple syrup leader Canada. And as important, Chabot said, is the willingness of producers to push their product through events like Maple Weekend, now in its 11th year, and to embrace and advance technology.

“The producers themselves are very clever people,” said Chabot, who works with Merle and others on projects including the sweeter trees and sterilizing lights.

Cornell scientists also busy developing recipes for new “value-added” maple products that allow producers to expand their offerings beyond syrup and maple cream to things like spreads, coated nuts and cotton candy.

“That increases the value of their work in producing the syrup by being able to get into those markets,” Chabot said.

The state has about 1,500 maple producers. Those participating in Maple Weekend are open from 10 a.m.-4 p.m.

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