In the more northerly parts of North America, the first signs of spring thaw are generally greeted with just about universal pleasure. There is one group, however, that watches the temperature rise with somewhat mixed emotions. These are the maple farmers. Unless the fading winter produces just the right combination of warm days and cold nights, maple sap won't be flowing as fast or as sweet as they might wish.
But meteorological uncertainties are not the only obstacle facing this uniquely North American industry. The labor-and energy-intensive nature of its operations has caused production costs to soar, and this has taken a heavy toll on the industry in recent decades. A few new pieces of technology, however, could be heralding a turnround for the maple business.
First, there is a gadget known as the reverse-ofmosis machine, which is promising to make a large dent in the fuel bills of maple farmers.
Because maple sap is so dilute, about 34 1/2 gallons of sap are required to produce one gallon of pure maple syrup. The excess water is removed by boiling the sap, a process that requires about 3 1/2 gallons of oil per gallon of syrup -- making maple syrup production a pretty expensive operation.
The reverse-ofmosis machine, however, can remove up to two-thirds of the water from maple sap mechanically, by forcing the sap under high pressure through a porous membrane. The last third of the water must still be boiled off in open-pan evaporation, but energy savings from the process are considerable.
Although its potential is great, Paul Sendak, a US forestry worker who has done research on the economics and marketing of maple products, feels that it is still too early to know what kind of effect the machine will have on the industry. Only about 20 were in use during the 1980 maple season, but he estimates that close to 100 will be employed this year.
At the same time, the second serious problem for maple farmers -- a labor shortage -- is being eased by a new sap collection method. For decades, maple farmers have been collecting sap on a tree-by-tree, bucket-by-bucket basis -- a very time-consuming task.
But now a technique known as vacuum tubing collection is being more widely employed. This method involves running a plastic tube from tree to tree, then connecting that tube to a pump. The pump is the same kind used by dairy farmers to milk cows. It creates a vacuum on the line which stimulates sap flow, and more or less "milks" the trees. It not only cuts labor time by about 25 percent , but can also increase a tree's sap output from 25 up to 75 percent.
The maple industry is one of the oldest on the continent. The Indians were the first North Americans to discover the uses of the sweet, stickly sap, and they passed the secret on to the early settlers. These settlers and their descendents developed a taste for maple, and eventually tappers went to work throughout 14 Northeast and Midwest US states as well as Canada.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the industry was thrivinG. Vermont alone produced over 1 million gallons of maple syrup each year. Today, vermont's annual output averages about 340,000 annually, and total North American output in 1980 was only around 5.5 million.
However, Claude Tardif, president of the 10,000-member International Maple Sugar Institute, headquartered in Montreal, predicts that due to the new technology, "1981 could be an all-time-high" for the maple industry.