Reverse Osmosis for Maple Syrup Production

Reverse osmosis uses a fine membrane while forcing sap under pressure, effectively removing much of the water from the sap and reducing the amount of boiling time and energy needed to make syrup. Steve Childs, Cornell University’s Maple Specialist, explains the process of reverse osmosis and the benefits this system provides to both the large-scale producer and the backyard producer alike. By running sap through a reverse osmosis system repeatedly, the sugar eventually becomes more and more concentrated, greatly reducing boiling time and energy in syrup production.

Steve Childs looks at a small-scale reverse osmosis unit and goes through the equipment piece by piece.

Steve Childs reviews a second reverse osmosis system for a small-scale maple syrup producer. Reverse osmosis greatly reduces the time and energy spent in boiling maple syrup by pulling much of the water from the sap before the boiling process begins. Sap can be put through the system repeatedly and becomes more concentrated with each pass through the RO membrane. Boiling the concentrated sap at the end is always necessary however, as that greatly contributes to maple syrup’s rich flavor.

We review one more reverse osmosis unit that is still applicable to the small-scale maple producer, despite this unit’s size. Many large-scale maple syrup producers will discard reverse osmosis units that no longer reduce syrup at full capacity; however, these units are perfectly suitable for a small-scale producer.

In this video, Steve Childs demonstrates how to use a reverse osmosis system. Reverse osmosis uses pressure to force a liquid, in this case maple sap, over a membrane. The membrane allows water molecules through, but forces the sugar molecules to pass over it, essentially reducing the amount of water in the sap with each pass of the liquid through the system. A reverse osmosis unit can greatly reduce the amount of time and energy needed in producing maple syrup. After the sap has sufficiently reduced, the unit should be cleaned by passing the clean water that was removed from the sap, back through the membranes. By using a refractometer, the remaining sugar content in the system can be determined and eliminated with more clean water passing through the membrane.

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Tap your walnut trees too!

Syrup doesn’t just belong to the realm of the maple tree anymore. Walnut, birch, and butternut trees can be tapped too. Tapping walnut trees is similar to tapping maple trees. The main difference is in the amount of sap collected from walnuts vs maples. Walnut trees have more heart wood and less of the white sap wood while maple trees have more sap wood which provides a greater yield of sap. Michael Farrell, the director of Cornell University’s Uihlein Forest, explains the process of tapping walnut trees in this video.

Nightly freezes during the spring, followed by warmer temperatures during the day cause the freezing and thawing within the tree that pulls sap up and then releases it back down through the cambium. By tapping into the tree’s sapwood, the sap can flow through the hole as the pressure is released and temperatures warm. Mike Farrell explains how the tubing is set up within the walnut sugar bush. Each tap is connected to a lateral line which then flows into the main line and journeys downhill to the collection tank. Tubing systems are best set up when gravity works with the vacuum pump at the collection point. Vacuum tubing increases the yield of sap and reduces the amount of time needed in collection.

When tapping a walnut tree (or any tree for that matter) it’s best to look for an unaffected area on the tree. Look for any defects in the bark and avoid those. Drill straight into the bark and straight back out without pause. Always examine the shavings that come out with the drill. If they are white, then you have good sapwood and should expect a good flow of sap from the tree. Tap in the spile and hang your bucket or bag from it. A cover can be used to keep any rain or snow out of the sap.

Due to walnut trees having sapwood that quickly turns to heartwood, you can begin tapping a walnut tree after 10-15 years, whereas with maple, it takes about 20-25 years for the tree to be large enough to tap. It’s best to practice conservative tapping all the same as every tap you make in a tree produces a stain column which will yield little to no sap if tapped within that same stain column the following year. One tap per tree is typically what you want to aim for unless it’s a very large tree that can support two taps. Walnut trees also differ from maples in that the sap contains pectin, an ingredient often used in making jams and jellies. This pectin makes the syrup more difficult to filter.

Walnut trees contain juglone, a component that causes an allelopathic reaction in many plants, but not all. This causes competing plants to die out, leaving little understory in walnut stands. Michael Farrell, Cornell University’s Director of the Uihlean Forest, discusses the characteristics of the walnut tree and cautions anyone who is allergic to nuts from trying walnut syrup. While it is possible for any proteins within the syrup that may cause allergies to be denatured during the boiling process, there has not been enough research to verify whether this is the case. Anyone with nut allergies should err on the side of caution and avoid consuming syrups from nut-bearing trees.

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22 trees that can be tapped for sap and syrup

22 trees that can be tapped for sap and syrup.

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Maple Sugar Season

After months of polar vortexes and heavy snows, spring has finally arrived with new opportunities for forest farming. Maple sugar season begins in late March and early April in the

Traditionally, buckets were used to collect maple sap.

Traditionally, buckets were used to collect maple sap.

Northeast U.S. The nightly freezes followed by daytime thaws is exactly what syrup producers are hoping for, as that temperature fluctuation maintains the needed pressure for gathering sap from sugar maple trees. Sap comes from the layer of cambium underneath the bark, which is where the xylem and phloem of the tree are housed. They are essentially the “veins” that carry nutrients from the leaves to the roots and visa versa. By tapping a maple, we’re puncturing that layer of cambium in order to collect those fluid nutrients which generally have a 2 percent sugar content. That minute amount of sugar is concentrated until it has the proper viscosity and sugar content of syrup. 

Sap collection traditionally used galvanized buckets but has since expanded to use bags and elaborate tubing systems, sometimes outfitted with vacuum pumps. However the sap is collected, it travels from the tree to the

Large scale sugaring operations use tubes which collect sap more efficiently.

Large scale sugaring operations use tubes which collect sap more efficiently.

sap house where it goes through various filters on its way to a reverse osmosis system (mostly in larger operations) which evacuates much of the sap’s water content and drastically cuts down on the time and energy needed at the sugar house where the remainder of the evaporation takes place. By pumping the sap through a thin membrane, the water molecules are forced out through that membrane while the sugar molecules remain behind. The process can be continued several times, removing more of the water content with each pass through the membrane. Afterwards, the concentrated sap is ready for the sugar house. It is here that it is boiled down to the proper sugar content which varies by state but generally rests around 66 percent sugar at 68 degrees Fahrenheit. After the sap reaches the point where it becomes syrup, it is bottled up and sold to pancake lovers across the nation. Although maple syrup predominately graces most breakfast tables, walnut, butternut and birch trees can be tapped as well. Each species produces a different amount of sap with varying degrees of pectin and sugar resulting in assorted hues, textures and tastes.

This is a small scale sugar house where the evaporation process takes place.

This is a small scale sugar house where the evaporation process takes place.


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Saving Seeds

Seeds: They are the all-important source of our sustenance and an ever-increasing topic of conversation. Each seed is a delicate package holding the promise of new life. The increasing rate of private home gardens, permaculture and food forests that are springing up in communities across the nation hint that people are taking the future of their nutrition into their own hands. Forest farmer, Dave Carmen, has made the most of his property by planting a host of medicinal plants including ginseng, false unicorn, goldenseal and bloodroot, to name a few. His experience as a forest farmer has led to some very innovate techniques for seed collection, especially when working on a small-scale farm. Posted below is a video detailing some of the methods he uses to gather seeds.

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Agroforestry’s Role in Climate Change

Gary Bentrup, a Research Landscape Planner with the USDA’s National Agroforestry Center came to Virginia Tech to give a seminar on agroforestry’s role within climate change. His seminar, posted below, gives a thorough look at our current agricultural practices and the vulnerability of crops today in the face of increasing climate change. Climate change comes with some very serious side effects including pests and diseases that are not adequately diminished by cold temperatures. Bentrup examines several agroforestry practices, including silvopasture, wind brakes, riparian buffers and forest farming that will help increase returns, diversify economic opportunities and add variability to the landscape. These practices also boost pollinator habitat and protect against soil erosion among other benefits.

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Growing Goldenseal

A couple of months ago, I went out to the southern hills of Appalachia to interview herbalist, Ben Kitchen, a dedicated Goldenseal grower. He explained how the demand for goldenseal is rising while its natural habitat is gradually being diminished. Goldenseal is perhaps the most powerful medicinal herb. It is often used in combination with other herbs such as echinacea. It can be ingested or applied topically, but caution should be used when taking goldenseal orally due to its potency. In this video, Ben Kitchen explains what Goldenseal is and what it’s used for medicinally:

So, let’s say that you’re interested in growing this potent medicinal plant. Where does it grow? Goldenseal is a shallow feeder: its roots don’t burrow very deep, so it’s important to consider the trees surrounding the site where you intend to plant it. Avoid other shallow feeding trees which may compete for nutrients. It prefers a soil with higher alkaloid content, and the soil’s pH will directly affect goldenseal’s own alkaloid content. Ben explains what exactly to look for and what to avoid when planting Goldenseal within the forest.

Goldenseal seeds may as well be nuggets of black gold. At $800 a pound, it’s important to plant them correctly! Ben Kitchen reviews how to plant goldenseal seed in a prepared bed within the forest. Burying flashing along with other tips and tricks helps keep the seeds alive and well.

Rhizome division is the fastest way to propagate goldenseal. By planting a root that has already been established, you can divide your crop in two and achieve mature plants faster than you can by beginning with seed. Fiber propagation is possible also. Growth buds can be seen on the fibers, indicating where the new plant will sprout:

Although goldenseal originates from seed, it propagates itself successfully through its root system. In the wild it grows in patches, popping up from growth nodules underground. It produces a berry from which the seeds can be taken and planted directly.

Goldenseal root can be harvested in very large quantities, depending on the scale of production. If you’re looking to propagate your current harvest through rhizome division, it can be a time-consuming process which could require you to store your goldenseal. In order to keep your goldenseal safe and sound from fungus or destructive bacteria, you can store it in peat moss for several months. Ben Kitchen illustrates a process called, ‘healing in.’

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Ginseng: Where and How to Grow It

Ginseng – its notoriety began in China as a cure for many ailments. It wasn’t long before demand for the human-like root outweighed the supply, thus sparking the search for ginseng in similar climates within North America. Ginseng has been dug for generations in the Appalachian Mountains. It’s a tradition and a skill that has been handed down as a means of income when other sources of work were scarce. Over-harvesting has led to a decline in the wild population, leading some innovative folks to grow it on their property. Independent Ginseng Expert, Bob Beyfuss illustrates the different varieties of ginseng. The differences reflect the manner in which they’re grown: field-cultivated ginseng roots are larger due to the use of fungicides, pesticides and fertilizers. They’re generally grown in dense beds that are prone to disease, thus calling for heavy doses of chemicals. Woods-cultivated roots may have some fungicides and pesticides applied, but unlike field cultivated, as the name implies, woods cultivated ginseng is grown in the forest, but in a more controlled environment than wild-simulated plots. Wild-simulated roots are grown in the forest and are not fertilized…they are meant to be grown as if they were wild roots. Wild roots, as mentioned earlier, are meeting a steep decline because they’re being over-harvested with little effort at stewardship. Bob illustrates each variety of ginseng in this video and explains the attached values.

So now we know what ginseng is and how its colors and properties reflect the manner in which it’s grown. Before rushing out to buy seeds and plant your future retirement in the back yard, you should know where ginseng prefers to grow. Bob explains what forest type and climate suits ginseng best:

Perhaps you’ve identified a suitable site to plant this cash crop and you’ve obtained some seed from a reliable source. (Ginseng seed takes two cold seasons to germinate. It will generally crack open, indicating that it has undergone the second cold season and is ready to be planted. Seed obtained directly from adult plants’ berries should be planted right away but will still take two cold seasons to germinate.) Fortunately, planting ginseng seed is the easy part.

Bob Beyfuss explains ginseng’s life cycle from seed to seed-bearing plant. We take a look at a very old specimen of Catskill Mountain ginseng which is being preserved for its seeds in order to continue the genetic strain.

Years have passed and you’re finally ready to harvest your first crop. What you may be wondering is what to do with it… How do you harness its medicinal properties and how should it be consumed? Bob explains two methods for processing ginseng in this last video of our Forest Farming YouTube series.

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Ginseng: Gold in the Ground

Woods-cultivated root. Photo courtesy of Bob Beyfuss.

Ginseng: For many of us, ginseng was one of those newfangled supplements that hit supermarket shelves with the similar intensity of kombucha, chia seeds, acai juice and yerba mate. But where does it come from and how is it grown? Many of the hottest health food items have exotic names, indicating exotic origins and while ginseng certainly does come from eastern Asia, it is also grown right here in the U.S.A.

Ginseng is prized for its root. The Asian variety is said to be more stimulating while the American variety contains more ‘cooling’ properties. Bob Beyfuss, an independent ginseng expert has been working with the medicinal plant for decades and explained its life cycle: “Ginseng plants generally become reproductive when the root attains a certain size. That could be as early as two or three years into the growth cycle. Typically in a forest, it would be 8-10 years into a life cycle. In a field situation, where it’s grown under artificial shade, the plants are almost all reproductive at age two and definitely by age three.” Freshly harvested seeds take nearly 18 months to go through the dormancy process. The immature embryo requires two cold spells in order to ripen, mature and break down various inhibitors. Once the seed ‘cracks,’ it’s ready to be planted in autumn.

Ginseng seeds

Ginseng seeds

You may ask, “Why wouldn’t you plant the seed in the spring, like with most plants?” Ginseng seeds actually need the cold period of winter in order to break their dormancy. Once the ground thaws, it’s ready to sprout its first leaf in the second spring. “If the conditions are right, by the fifth, sixth and seventh year, the plant will finally flower and produce seeds. It does not reproduce particularly well on its own. Ginseng berries that ripen in nature and fall to the ground have about a two or three percent chance of actually growing into plants. If you take the time to pick those berries and very carefully plant them when they’re ripe, you can get that germination rate up to about 85 percent,” says Beyfuss.

Perhaps now we can start to see one of the reasons why this medicinal plant is so valuable – a wild or wild-simulated root takes nearly 5-8 years to develop a root of a decent size, and the seed alone takes a year and a half to mature.

When grown in the forest, ginseng is most vulnerable to deer predation. If you’re thinking about

Sugar Maple Forest

Sugar Maple Forest

growing ginseng in your back yard, you should first consider the forest type that ginseng needs in order to thrive. While ginseng does not require or even like a nutrient rich soil,

it does benefit from a healthy dose of calcium. Sugar maple forests in the north litter the ground with calcium-rich leaves in the fall, providing the optimum mulch for ginseng. As you move further south, ginseng can be found growing in poplar forests or under black walnut trees. “The acid test for ‘Can I Grow Ginseng on This Site?’ has to do with the herbaceous perennials that are growing on the forest floor,” says Beyfuss. “Even though there may be no ginseng present at all, the presence of plants such as bainberry, maidenhair fern, rattlesnake fern, blue cohash, foam flower and to a certain extent, stinging nettle – these are plants that indicate that the conditions are just right for ginseng. The fact that they’re there, number one, tells you that there’s not too much deer predation, because these are the types of plants that will quickly be wiped out if there’s too much deer.”

So you’ve identified a good site with sugar maple, poplar or walnut trees and the herbaceous understory is looking intact with some of the indicator plants nearby… Now you have to prepare the site. Some of the understory layer should be cleared away to make sure that the ginseng isn’t competing for sunlight. You could even take down some of the smaller trees (if they’re hardwoods, refer to our blog post on shiitake mushrooms to see how to cultivate mushrooms on the logs). Once some of the understory has been cleared, rake the leaves away from the plot, remove any large rocks and rake through the soil to aerate it. Uniformly broadcast the ginseng seeds by hand and simply walk over the seeds to ensure that they make contact with the soil. Rake the leaves back on top of the plot and sprinkle a bit of rodent repellant over the area to keep the voles at bay. Then you wait…and wait…for years…until it’s time to harvest the golden roots from the ground. For more information of forest farming, check out our YouTube site for detailed ‘How To’ videos on growing non-timber forest products or visit our website.

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Agroforestry at Virginia Tech’s Catawba Sustainability Center

Fruits, nuts, florals, medicinal plants, ramps, shiitake mushrooms, truffles and so much more…there are a million different combinations of forest farming that you can implement on your land to raise its production in a sustainable and holistic way. By managing your property for timber value and incorporating crops within the forest’s understory, you’re essentially doubling the land’s use. Even just an acre can be managed efficiently to increase value and diversity. By incorporating some of the principles of permaculture, specifically layering, forest farming utilizes each layer to the benefit of the others. Similar to how a tree’s leaves and roots are mutually dependent, the living layers within forest farmed land create a kind of symbiosis where each layer can contribute to the good of the other layers. The forest canopy can provide the dappled sunlight or consistent shade needed by the understory crops, while ground cover crops reduce erosion and help contain the soil’s nutrients, thus benefiting the canopy.

Take a look at this video featuring Virginia Tech’s Catawba Sustainability Center. Through careful planning and consideration, an old farm was transformed into a model for sustainable agroforestry.

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