Starting a Sweet New Industry
October 19, 2022
On a steep hillside beneath a canopy of scarlet leaves, University of Idaho Extension educator Bracken Henderson in Franklin County, searched for the perfect copse of bigtooth maples.
About 25 yards uphill, his collaborators — Paul Harris, a research technician with Utah State University’s Center for Water Efficient Landscaping, and USU plant sciences graduate student Jesse Mathews — evaluated trunk circumferences within another grove.
The researchers are in the first year of a project aiming to introduce a new niche agricultural industry to the Intermountain West — locally sourced maple and boxelder syrup. USU received a three-year, $500,000 grant through the Acer Access and Development Program under USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service to test the feasibility of commercial syrup production in parts of Idaho, Utah and Wyoming. U of I received a $50,000 sub-grant through USU to assist in the effort, focusing on the foothills near Oxford, an isolated farming community of 48 people in southeast Idaho.
On that crisp, early October morning, the trio tapped 30 of the largest maples they could find on a sufficient grade and within proximity. They set up a network of rubber piping connecting the trees to a central vessel at the base of the hill. In the spring, Henderson will boil down the sap that accumulates within the vessel, demonstrating to landowners that the profits they stand to make by selling syrup are worth their time and effort.
“Whatever we come up with is better than anyone has done in the state of Idaho,” Henderson assured Harris as they discussed the optimal configuration for their network of tubing.
“Or in the West at all,” Harris added.
Henderson is working with two Oxford agricultural producers who are seeking a new way to diversify their operations and pad profits. Landowner Clark Cox has both dairy and beef cows that graze his maple forest, and he also raises hay and grain. He’s optimistic maple syrup production will provide him a small revenue stream from a perennial resource.
“I hope to utilize the maples in another way rather than just for firewood,” Cox said. “We’ll leave them standing for beautification but also utilize what they produce.”
The Oxford landowners plan to save time and cut costs by pooling their sap, boiling it together and marketing it under a common label. Henderson will use some of his grant funding to purchase a wood burner for them to use. A reverse osmosis system to remove some of the water prior to boiling is also an option.
Henderson experimented last season by tapping several trees, collecting the sap in buckets. His finished bigtooth maple syrup had a similar sugar content as syrup made from sugar maples in the East, and he was impressed by the flavor.
Using buckets, he collected about 30 liters of sap per tree throughout the single season — roughly half the yield of operations in major production states such as Vermont. He had to boil 40 to 50 liters of sap to make a single liter of finished product.
The U.S. Forest Service estimates Idaho has at least 2.1 million bigtooth maple trees of sufficient size to be tapped, with the best stands spanning throughout eastern Idaho.
“There’s not a lot of research out there about maple syrup in the West,” Henderson said. “Most of these trees they wouldn’t tap in the East. They want 10-inch trunks and larger, but we don’t have those here.”
USU yielded a similar volume using buckets last season. The researchers, however, are optimistic they’ll fare better this season with hoses.
It takes about 30 trees growing close together on a slope with a 30-foot elevation difference from the top tree in the group to the vessel at the bottom to maximize tubing capacity. Rather than relying solely on gravity to extract sap, as is the case with buckets, the tubing system creates a vacuum to suck out additional sap, which should boost sap yields.
“I’d love to see a Utah or Idaho maple syrup company, but we’ll see,” Mathews said. “So far, it’s taken a lot of time and effort for what we’ve gotten out of this, but this is our first year trying a tubing system, so that may be the way to do it.”
In addition to the Oxford properties, University of Wyoming will collaborate with test locations in the Cowboy State, and USU is evaluating three sites in Utah’s Cache Valley. At one of those locations, Spanish Fork, Utah, discussions are underway about starting a community maple syrup festival.
The principal investigator of the project, Youping Sun, an assistant professor of plants, soils and climate at USU, envisions western syrup will enjoy strong demand at farmers markets and other locations specializing in locally produced food products.
Levels of certain heavy metals can run high in some Cache Valley soils, and Sun will carefully test syrup from all the trial locations to make sure it’s safe to consume.
“I think there’s really great potential,” Sun said.
Published in Catching Up with CALS
About the University of Idaho
The University of Idaho, home of the Vandals, is Idaho’s land-grant, national research university. From its residential campus in Moscow, U of I serves the state of Idaho through educational centers in Boise, Coeur d’Alene and Idaho Falls, nine research and Extension centers, plus Extension offices in 42 counties. Home to nearly 11,000 students statewide, U of I is a leader in student-centered learning and excels at interdisciplinary research, service to businesses and communities, and in advancing diversity, citizenship and global outreach. U of I competes in the Big Sky and Western Athletic conferences. Learn more at uidaho.edu