A Discovery That Literally Turns the Maple Syrup Industry Upside DownS

And, yes, we do mean "literally."

But, before getting into the physics of it, let's take a minute to imagine what a maple syrup farm today looks like. Tall maples, snowy woods—pretty much an idyllic New England scene. A recent scientific discovery, however, means that forests of mature trees could be replaced by fields of dense saplings, much like the row crops of Big Ag. No longer would maple syrup be a product of the wild. No longer would it have to abide by the rhythms of nature.

So back to the "upside down" part for how it all works. As Laura Sorkin writes in Modern Farmer, two scientists from the University of Vermont (where else?) shocked the audience at the Lake Erie Maple Expo last October with their announcement that sap can flow up from the roots of a maple sapling. In contrast, when you tap a mature tree, sap flows down from the crown to the base.

Reversing the flow of sap required a bit of engineering, namely vacuums and lopping off the tops of saplings. When vacuum tubes were attached to crownless saplings—you can see a few photos at Modern Farmer—the plants kept producing sap, far more than the saplings themselves held. The researchers hypothesized that the saplings must be drawing moisture from its roots, "like a sugar-filled straw stuck in the ground," as the University of Vermont put it.

And an acre of topless, vacuum-sucked saplings could be ten times as productive as a traditional forest. Maple farms of the future would not only be much smaller, but there's also no reason they would need to be in a Vermont forest—or any of the other places that traditionally produce maple syrup.

The saplings could also be more resilient to climate change and pests. The flow of sap is always dependent on freeze-thaw cycles, but small saplings need less freezing than mature trees. The invasive Asian longhorn beetle, usually a nuisance for sugarbushes, leaves the saplings alone. Reversing the flow of sap could truly revolutionize the maple syrup industry—saving it or destroying it depending on your view.

A Discovery That Literally Turns the Maple Syrup Industry Upside DownS

Maple tree sap collected with plastic tubing. C'mon, you didn't really think anyone still used metal pails, did you? Credit: Alexandralaw1977/Shutterstock

The changes aren't here—yet. The necessary equipment isn't commercially available, so scaling up still presents a challenge, but the researchers have applied for a patent.

In the future, though, it is not so hard to imagine that there could be a lot more choices in the syrup aisle. There'll still be cheap Aunt Jemima's and fancy genuine Vermont maple syrup, but there'll also be all the stuff in between: farmed and vacuumed, perhaps, in the northern midwest.

And, as is abundantly clear from our current food trends, we are deeply attached to the romantic notions of food—to snowy forests and plaid-shirted woodsmen. Surely a savvy marketer will be selling artisanal, organic, hand-tapped, slow-roasted, gluten-free, GMO-free, maple syrup whose flavor is So Much Better than that sapling stuff. [Modern Farmer]

Lead image: Goodmood Photo/Shutterstock