WILLIAMSTOWN, Vt. (AP) — It’s 2 inches tall, costs about 35 cents and looks
like a tiny rocket ship.

But it has big potential: Scientists at the University of Vermont who
developed a new maple spout adapter say it could revolutionize the syrup
industry, extending the annual harvest by weeks and boosting sap yields by up to
90 percent per tree.

“This is one of the biggest leaps in tubing technology in a long, long time,”
said Bruce Bascom, a maple sugar maker in Alstead, N.H.

The tiny nylon device, which has been in development for two years and was
unveiled publicly Monday, works with vacuum tubing systems used by most maple
sugar producers by inhibiting the reverse flow of sap into trees that occurs
when pumps are shut off or holes develop in the tubing.

Typically, when a vacuum system is shut off, the maple tree reflexively
begins to suck sap back in from tubing, sometimes carrying bacteria. Once the
trees detects them, it begins to wall off the tap hole, stopping sap
production.

The new device — developed by Timothy Perkins, director of the University of
Vermont Proctor Maple Research Center, in conjunction with maple industry
supplier Leader Evaporator Co. — uses a valve — a small ball that rolls to and
fro in a chamber inside the spout — to block backflow.

“By using a check valve in the system to prevent sap from moving backward
into the tree, then the microorganisms don’t get into the tap hole, the tap hole
stays cleaner and the sap will continue running longer in the season,” Perkins
said.

Tests found it ran for about a week to three weeks longer than usual and
produced 50 to 90 percent more sap from the same tap hole, he said.

Extending the normal six-week season by a few weeks may not be as lucrative
as it sounds, though. Maple trees produce some of their sweetest sap at the
beginning of the season, so increasing the amount of sap at the end of the
season may not equate to big increases in syrup production, Bascom said.

It’s also not clear whether the device will make it cheaper to put pure maple
syrup on the breakfast table. Retail prices soared last winter to $60 per gallon
because of low production and high global demand. A banner year in 2009 — U.S.
sugar makers produced 2.3 million gallons last winter, the most in at least 65
years — didn’t drive prices back down.

It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make a gallon of maple syrup. Nationally,
there are about 50 million taps. Canada is the leading producer of maple syrup
by far, accounting for more than 80 percent of the world’s supply.

Historically, maple sugar producers hung steel buckets on tree taps, and then
carried the buckets to a sugarhouse to be boiled into syrup in giant stainless
steel evaporators. But since the 1960s, the development of vacuum tubing has
mechanized the process and boosted sap yield, so most sugar makers do it that
way.


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