New Cornell sugarhouse sweetens NY’s maple industry

ITHACA, N.Y. – The Cornell Maple Program has opened an advanced, New York state-funded maple research laboratory, an upgrade that will enable research on how to produce the highest-quality syrup, develop new maple products and improve existing ones – all at commercial scales.

The research, educational materials and expertise that the facility will generate will inform New York state maple producers and help ensure that the industry continues to grow. The U.S. Department of Agriculture valued the state’s 2020 syrup sales at $30 million.

On July 29, a ribbon-cutting ceremony commemorated the opening of the new facility at the Arnot Teaching and Research Forest in Van Etten, New York.

“This state-of-the-art facility positions New York’s already thriving maple industry for new successes and that’s a win for maple researchers, producers and consumers alike,” said Benjamin Houlton, the Ronald P. Lynch Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “We’re grateful for the continued support of the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, the Appalachian Regional Commission, and the advocacy of New York State Senate Agriculture committee chair Senator Michelle Hinchey and New York State Assembly Agriculture committee chair Donna Lupardo to bring this space to life.”

Houlton attended the ceremony along with Richard Ball, commissioner at NYS Department of Agriculture and Markets, and Lupardo, New York State Assembly member (D-123rd Dist.).

The new maple lab was built with $500,000 from Ag and Markets – plus an additional $50,000 to hire a food scientist – and $150,000 from the Appalachian Regional Commission, as well as maple program funds.

The 4,200-square-foot sugarhouse features:

  • A vacuum system: Sap is collected through a closed vacuum tubing system that pulls sap from the trees, through tubes and into storage tanks in the sugarhouse. The sap collection system was extended to connect the new facility with 7,800 tapped trees in the Arnot sugarbush. This vast tubing network now includes more than 50 miles of tubing spread over 4 miles of forest. The facility also includes a new vacuum pump.
  • A filtration unit: Sap directly from trees and concentrated sap will run through this unit to remove bacteria.
  • Storage tanks: Once sap reaches the sugarhouse, it will flow into eight 2,000-gallon stainless steel storage tanks. An additional 1,500-gallon refrigerated tank was donated by the Western New York Maple Producers Association for long-term storage of concentrated sap.
  • A reverse osmosis system: The facility now has two identical reverse osmosis units that remove water from sap and concentrate it. The excess water is then reused to wash the tanks at the end of each day. By duplicating the reverse osmosis system, the staff will be able to run experimental and control tests to determine optimal processes.
  • Evaporators: Two state-of-the-art evaporators have been installed in order to cook the sap. The equipment collects waste heat from the steam and transfers it back to preheat the inflow of sap before it enters the evaporator.
  • A fully equipped, commercial-grade certified research kitchen: The only new maple product development lab in the country, the kitchen will develop products such as maple soda, beer, wine, kombucha, chocolate, and sports and nutritional drinks.
  • Classroom space: The old sugarhouse lacked a safe classroom area (without hot surfaces); the program now has dedicated room for running workshops.

The space replaces a 920-square-foot rustic sugarhouse, which was built in 1957 from wood harvested and milled at Arnot Forest. The old house had an uneven floor, was constructed to accommodate up to 2,000 sap taps and lacked heat, running water and a proper restroom. In 2019, during normal operations prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Arnot Maple Program tapped 7,800 trees, and people spent a lot of time at the sugarhouse.

“Boiling sap like that oftentimes kept us there all night,” said Aaron Wightman, co-director of the Cornell Maple Program. “We’ve done 48-hour shifts; staffing [those shifts] is just incredibly painful and difficult.”

Also, much of the research relevant to New York maple producers must address the needs of larger-scale systems, as state commercial operations typically tap 5,000 to 10,000 trees. Along with a cement floor, hot tap water, a bathroom and insulation, the new facility meets commercial standards.

In addition to accommodating larger systems, the facility will help keep the state’s maple industry robust.

“The maple industry in New York has grown about 400% in the last 15 years,” Wightman said. “All appearances suggest that we will continue to expand, which is a great benefit to upstate New York, where a lot of other agricultural businesses have been losing ground. This is a new opportunity.”

But, he added, producers need to keep gaining efficiency and improving and maintaining quality in order to keep it profitable. When maple syrup reaches the shelf, consumers don’t distinguish between sources, he said, so bad batches can lower consumer perceptions of the entire industry. Right now, more research is needed to understand steps in the process that influence flavor and syrup color (which determines the grade).

“I’m trying to create guidelines and decision-making tools that allow maple producers to control the process,” Wightman said.

The new facility is one of two in the country (along with the University of Vermont) with redundant systems. The setup will let Wightman run experiments to determine optimal storage conditions; microbe levels that convert sugars and affect color; temperature; dissolved oxygen levels; and the right time to boil sap.

Also, much of the research relevant to New York maple producers must address the needs of larger-scale systems, as state commercial operations typically tap 5,000 to 10,000 trees. Along with a cement floor, hot tap water, a bathroom and insulation, the new facility meets commercial standards.

In addition to accommodating larger systems, the facility will help keep the state’s maple industry robust.

“The maple industry in New York has grown about 400% in the last 15 years,” Wightman said. “All appearances suggest that we will continue to expand, which is a great benefit to upstate New York, where a lot of other agricultural businesses have been losing ground. This is a new opportunity.”

But, he added, producers need to keep gaining efficiency and improving and maintaining quality in order to keep it profitable. When maple syrup reaches the shelf, consumers don’t distinguish between sources, he said, so bad batches can lower consumer perceptions of the entire industry. Right now, more research is needed to understand steps in the process that influence flavor and syrup color (which determines the grade).

“I’m trying to create guidelines and decision-making tools that allow maple producers to control the process,” Wightman said.

The new facility is one of two in the country (along with the University of Vermont) with redundant systems. The setup will let Wightman run experiments to determine optimal storage conditions; microbe levels that convert sugars and affect color; temperature; dissolved oxygen levels; and the right time to boil sap.

For additional information, see this Cornell Chronicle story.

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