Traverse City Record-Eagle

Life

April 3, 2014

Syrup-makers go high-tech

MILTON, Vt. (AP) — Maple syrup production has come a long way from metal buckets hung on trees, but even high-tech operations have had to rely on old-fashioned foot patrols to fix a common problem — leaks.

The tubes that draw sap from trees straight to sugar houses often get pulled down or bent by falling limbs or chewed by critters, meaning sugar-makers spend hours and sometimes days stomping through snowy woods to find and fix problems — a big time-waster in a sugaring season that lasts just a few weeks.

But now sugar-makers are harnessing new technology to keep the precious sap flowing.

Meadowbrook Maple Syrup in January installed a monitoring system that is already paying off. Designed to help mid-to-large scale syrup producers keep an electronic eye their sap vacuum lines, the Tap Track system consists of solar battery-powered radio units strapped to trees, with each unit monitoring the pressure on a half-dozen lines. The data is transmitted to a computer or smartphone, where it shows up as a map with green dots indicating lines with good sap flow and red dots indicating leaks. Users can even get text messages alerting them to problems.

“I think it’s the thing of the future. I really do,” owner Donnie Richards said.

In the past, Richards and his crew would have to walk the woods of Milton listening and looking for leaks, which was time-consuming.

“And if you didn’t find the leak that day, you didn’t get sap off that part of the woods all day long,” he said.

Now he uses his iPhone to check the system and can immediately see a leak and when it is repaired.

Richards’ operation includes about 5,000 taps, with about 18 miles of tubing spread out over more than 100 acres. The new system costs $1 to $2 per tap, but inventor Jason Gagne said the return on investment can be seen in one season. He said the test site of 20,000 taps in Ontario resulted in a more than 5 percent increase in sap collection, or an extra $15,000.

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