Sugarmakers consider new ‘check valve’ technology

ADDISON COUNTY — At sugarbushes around the county, many veteran sugarmakers have kicked into high gear for the season.
And, although cold temperatures in the mountains meant sugaring operations in Starksboro, Lincoln and Bristol were still on hold early last week, the sap was running in the valley at Andy Hutchison’s Mt. Pleasant Sugarworks in Leicester.
Hutchison has 3,000 trees tapped this year. Like many other area sugarmakers, he’s testing the new plastic “check valves” that could potentially boost production at his sugarbush.
Like standard taps, the new “check valves” wick sap from sugar maples through a hole drilled into the tree. But the new devices are plastic and smaller than typical taps — only about two inches long.
They’re used in connection with the tubing and vacuum systems that, at many sugarbushes in Vermont, have replaced the picturesque buckets associated with the industry. When vacuum pumps are shut off, or holes develop in the tubing networks, the flow of sap reverses back into the maple trees.
As maples reflexively suck up the sap from tubing, the sap sometimes carries bacteria into the trees. When that happens, trees automatically begin to wall off the tap hole and stop sap production.
The check valve, which was developed by the University of Vermont and a maple industry supplier, uses a valve to block backflow. The development could potentially lengthen the sugaring season.
Hutchison used the disposable plastic valves on 900 taps at his sugarbush. Those trees are in an area he can isolate from the other taps, so he’ll be watching closely to see if the check valves live up to the promises of some in the maple industry.
“Anything we can do to help our production out would be great,” Hutchison said, though he was cautious about making any sweeping predictions about the new technology. “Am I excited about it? Well, I think it has good possibilities for quite a few people, but this will be the year to tell.”
While Hutchison said that nearly every sugarmaker he knows is testing the valve this year, approval for the new device is not universal.
At the Bristol-based Two Old Saps, Paul Greco started tapping last week, but as of Tuesday the sap in his neck of the woods wasn’t running yet.
He won’t be testing any of the valves on his 2,200 taps.
“I have a problem with throwing it away every year,” said Greco. The taps, which cost 35 cents a piece, can’t be reused from year to year.
“That doesn’t sit well with me,” Greco said, “not unless it’s really that much more profitable than the taps that I’m using. We’ll see what happens.”
For now, Greco said he’s going to focus on the upcoming sugaring season, and leave the testing to someone else. He’s worried about what too much expansion could do to the maple syrup industry, which has seen demand and prices rising dramatically over the last few years.
Maple syrup sold for as much as $60 a gallon last year after a few previous years of uncooperative weather put a dent in the supply. Even after a bumper crop last year — U.S. sugar makers produced 2.3 million gallons last winter, the most in more than six decades — prices stayed high.
“The suppliers keep telling us that we should be expanding, expanding. ‘This is the time to expand,’” Greco said. “That expansion will just do to us what has happened to the milk farmers, and bring the price down instead of leveling off.”
Reporter Kathryn Flagg is at [email protected].

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