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The University of Missouri College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources’ Baskett Research Center, near Ashland, spans nearly 2,300 acres and includes more than 80 species of trees.
Included in that expansive forest are numerous sugar maple trees. From January to March, those maple trees offer a unique opportunity – a chance to tap them for maple syrup.
Led by Baskett Superintendent Ben Knapp, volunteers tap more than 150 trees throughout the maple syrup season each year. Those volunteers generally help throughout the entire process, from tree tapping, to collecting the sap, to boiling and bottling the syrup.
Knapp has been involved with maple tree tapping at Baskett since he joined MU in 2012 as an assistant professor of silviculture. That was the same year that Rich Guyette, professor emeritus in the School of Natural Resources, received a grant to install an evaporator at Baskett. The evaporator boils and cooks the sap into maple syrup.
Knapp took over the organization of the tree tapping in 2016, after becoming the superintendent of Baskett.
“The general public probably doesn’t think about maple syrup coming from Missouri,” Knapp said. “All of the maple syrup you see has Canada or Vermont pretty clearly stamped on there.
“Having volunteers help with the tree tapping gives us a great opportunity to not only showcase the Baskett Research Center but to educate individuals on the maple syrup production in Missouri. It’s also a great way to introduce individuals to some activities that they can do in the forest. That exposure is important to what we do.”
Support for the Baskett Research Center maple syrup project is provided by the CAFNR Foundation.
Baskett uses two different tapping methods to collect sap from the sugar maple trees. The most common method used at Baskett includes using a plastic tap. The first step for this method involves drilling a small hole into the tree. After the plastic tap is hammered into the newly drilled hole, a piece of short, plastic tubing is attached to the tap to help the sap flow down from the tree and into a five-gallon bucket, hung from the plastic tap.
The second method was used for the first time at Baskett in 2017. Like the plastic tap, the first step is to drill a hole into the maple tree. A metal spile is hammered into the hole and a metal holder is placed on the spile. A plastic bag, called a Sap Sak, is hung from the holder. Baskett hung 25 of the saks in 2017.
“They’re using the Sap Saks a lot out east,” Knapp said. “We had a faculty member out there, and they were sending me pictures of the saks. We looked into how they worked and decided to buy some. They’re becoming more common.
“I really like using the saks. They were really easy to install and empty, and they kept out some of the debris, like leaves and small tree limbs. We’ll definitely continue to use those in the future.”
Knapp said the amount of sap collected at Baskett is completely dependent on the weather. When the weather is perfect, Knapp said each tree can produce several gallons of sap in a day.
The ideal flow weather includes freezing temperatures at night (upper 20s) and thawing during the day (upper 30s or lower 40s).
“When you get that contrast, that’s the best,” Knapp said. “It’s all dependent on the weather, though. When the trees bud and start leafing out, the flow will stop. You won’t get sap after that.”
The maple trees tapped each year have been tapped in previous years. Most trees only have one tap – the thicker trees can handle two.
“We tap all of the trees in this area every year,” Knapp said “The wound that the tap creates, it will seal up within the next year. We do want to offset the new tap the next year. We don’t go above or below the old wound for the new tap.”
Knapp is hoping to try a few other maple syrup techniques as he continues to grow the project. For example, Knapp said the recommendation is to put the taps on the south side of the tree. While they don’t practice that at Baskett for every tap, it’s something that Knapp said he would be interested in looking at.
“The south side of the tree is going to get the sun hitting it more often,” he said. “If you’ve got a freeze at night and the sun hitting it the next day, you could get a better thaw. It’s possible that the north side may not thaw. There could be differences between the sap flows.
“It’s something we could compare in the future. The logic definitely makes sense.”
Once the taps are set in the sugar maple trees, the sap flow is in Mother Nature’s hands. While the maple syrup season generally lasts from January to March in Missouri, the weather dictates how much sap actually flows. The season can run shorter or longer depending on the temperatures.
Baskett ended up with around 200 sap gallons during 2017, which was collected in two batches. The warm winter weather kept the sap from really flowing well.
“It seemed like an abnormal year,” Knapp said. “The year before was kind of abnormal as well. I don’t feel like we’ve had great maple syrup weather the last few winters. The warm weather isn’t conducive to good sap flow.”
Knapp pays attention to the five-gallon buckets and the saks to determine when to collect. Knapp said when the weather is perfect – and you have a good tree that is really flowing – three gallons of sap a day isn’t out of the question. Baskett had around 150 trees tapped and collected 200 gallons of sap in 2017, showing how the warm weather affected the flow.
“The weather definitely slowed down the production,” Knapp said.
The 200 sap gallons that Knapp collected equaled around four gallons of maple syrup. There is usually an approximate 40-to-1 ratio for turning sap into syrup, although sugar content can vary in sap from around 1 to 5 percent.
The collecting of sap is a time-consuming project. Knapp uses a UTV with a trailer attached to it to go the maple trees to collect the sap. The trailer carried a tank that holds 150 gallons of sap.
“We drive out to the sugar bush and empty each container into the tank,” Knapp said. “We pour the sap through filters first to catch the debris that can find its way into the sap.”
Once the sap is collected, it is transported back to the Baskett Research Center headquarters.
“The next step really depends on our schedule,” Knapp said. “We have a pump that pumps the sap from our tank on the UTV into a larger tank. The larger tank holds 200 gallons, so we are able to store the sap in there if we don’t have time to boil right away.
“You can store the sap that way for a few days, depending on the weather. You need to have 80 or more gallons of sap to do a boil.”
Baskett has a wood-fed evaporator to boil the sap. The evaporator was installed in 2012, as part of a grant Guyette received. The evaporator holds around 30 or 40 gallons of sap and allows for a quicker boil because of its size.
“You do have less control with the evaporator because you can’t just shut it off,” Knapp said.
As the sap boils and flows through the evaporator, it can be moved to a smaller boiler to finish the process. By moving the sap from the evaporator to the smaller boiler, it allows for more sap to flow into the evaporator.
“You always have fresh sap coming in,” Knapp said. “The continued influx of sap in the back means that the sap in that location has a lower sugar content. The sap toward the front has a much higher sugar content because it generally stays in the evaporator longer.
“When it’s really going, you can do all of those things together.”
The evaporator boils the sap to remove the water. The goal is to hit 67 percent sugar. Once it hits that mark, it officially becomes maple syrup.
Once the maple syrup hits the perfect sugar content in the smaller boiler, Knapp runs the syrup through another filter. The syrup is then directed into numerous glass syrup bottles via a tubing system.
The syrup is graded based on color. Knapp said a lighter color comes with a lighter flavor. The darker syrup has a richer, stronger flavor.
“The first run tends to lead to lighter syrup,” Knapp said. “It gets darker and richer later in the year.”
Knapp did something a little different during the collection process in 2017. He measured the sap in each container, making notes on how much sap each tree produced.
“There were definitely some patterns,” Knapp said. “We really wanted to begin the process of keeping records so that we can see how the trees perform from year to year. This was a good start.”
The syrup is used in a couple different ways. Knapp generally rewards the volunteers with some of the syrup. It is also used, at times, in promotional settings.
Knapp would like to grow the promotion of Baskett as well. Whether it be selling the syrup or bringing people out to the Baskett Research Center, Knapp is hoping to showcase the importance of natural resource management.
“There is definitely room for development,” Knapp said. “We would like to really promote what we do at Baskett. There is a market there where we could do a lot of promotion. It’s all about getting word out.”