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UP CLOSE: Maple research center has new director

March 1, 2019
By GRIFFIN KELLY - Staff Writer (gkelly@adirondackdailyenterprise.com) , Lake Placid News

LAKE PLACID - In Adam Wild's office at Cornell University's Uihlein Maple Research Forest, he keeps a real old-school tree tap on his desk. It's nothing intricate, just a hollowed-out wooden dowel. One half sticks into a tree, and the other is cut open so sap can flow out of the tree and run down the dowel. It looks much different from today's taps, which more closely resemble a tube connecting to an IV bag in a hospital room.

Wild, a 29-year-old from Cattaraugus County, recently moved to the Adirondacks and started working as the director of the maple research center in January.

Previously, he taught in the plant sciences program at SUNY Cobleskill, where he earned his undergraduate degree. He also earned a master's degrees in forest ecology at SUNY College of Environmental Sciences and Forestry in Syracuse.

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Adam Wild, the new director of Cornell University’s Uihlein Maple Research Forest in Lake Placid, stands next to a tapped maple tree Tuesday, Feb. 26. News photo — Griffin Kelly

Wild doesn't come from a lineage of maple harvesters, but he did grow up on a farm in Great Valley about an hour outside of Buffalo, where his family raised livestock and grew vegetables such as pumpkins and potatoes.

"I love nature and being out in the woods," he said. "It's the growth within the trees that interests me. The more that I study it and the more that we learn about science and our natural ecosystems - it's pretty fascinating to me."

The work done at the Uihlein forest helps industry professionals learn better operations and more cost-effective ways for maple sugaring. Whether it's testing different equipment or studying the health of a forest's trees, Wild said the goal is to provide research for syrup producers who don't have the time or resources to figure out the best methods.

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"The maple industry has grown significantly throughout New York," Wild said. "In the last 15 years, it's quadrupled, and it continues to grow. So I think the research work that we do here is more important than ever. There's certainly an important part for those small producers, but there are a lot more larger producers now who are not just selling syrup at a roadside stand but are selling on international markets. The consumption of maple syrup is growing across the world in Europe and Japan."

Sugaring is much different from other types of agriculture. It's not like most crop farming, where there are different growing seasons for different plants. When it comes to maple trees, there's a small period of time when you can harvest sap. Wild said for the Northeast, it's usually about four to six weeks in the months of March and April, a pretty small window of opportunity.

"If we're lucky we'll get six weeks," he said. "There have been some years where you might only get a couple of weeks worth of runs based on temperature, and so you're doing all this prep work and getting ready for that four to six weeks and then it's kind of just doing as much as you can and staying up late some nights boiling sap."

Many species of trees will produce plenty of sap in the summertime but also use it up quickly to help grow taller and spread more seeds. Wild said these trees live fast and die out. "Sprinters" is what he calls them. However, trees like maples and birch can produce a lot of sap but use it over a long period of time, the "marathon runners."

"They produce and store a lot of sap so that if they come to a point where they need extra energy, they have it," Wild said. "They're storing it for those times when maybe there's a large insect deflation that comes in, like gypsy moths or forest tent caterpillars that chew off all their leaves. Or maybe there's a really rainy, cloudy year with not a lot of sun, or there's an ice storm and the maples have stored sugars and can kind of ride out those tough times."

Sap is a mixture of sugars, minerals and water, mostly water. To get syrup, you need to boil off that water.

"It takes about 43 gallons of sap to get 1 gallon of syrup," Wild said.

However, certain trees are classified as super-sweet, ones that produce more sap rich in sugars and minerals. Wild said it takes only about 20 gallons of super-sweet sap to get one gallon of syrup. In the Northeast, the Uihlein forest has identified 21,000 super-sweet trees.

Right now, Wild and the research forest is gearing up for New York state's two official Maple Weekends: March 23-24 and 30-31. Uihlein forest is always open for people to buy syrup, but during the Maple Weekends people can get tours of the maple operations and learn about the best methods for sap harvesting. Guests can also sample different types of syrup.

If you go to any diner or breakfast place in the Adirondacks, you're likely to see "real maple syrup" on the menu underneath pancakes, waffle and French toast options. Wild said the differences between real maple syrup and something like Mrs. Butterworth's or Aunt Jemima are nearly infinite.

"There is really no comparison," he said. "The two are completely different things.

"If you're a local producer, you're collecting natural sap water from a tree," he continued. "You're picking up those minerals and then concentrating that down and making a natural product. It's nothing but pure sap from a tree. Aunt Jemima is taking high-fructose corn syrup and adding a bunch of caramel colors and other dyes and imitation flavors. If you look at the bottles, they don't even say 'maple syrup.' It might say something like 'pancake syrup' or 'table syrup.' Unfortunately, that fake flavoring that they put in is what some people think maple tastes like, but it's not really even much like that at all."

 
 
 

 

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