Maple Syrup: Beginning Commercial Production

If you have spent a year or two as a hobbyist and decide you like sugaring, this page will allow you to "scale up" you operation to small-scale commercial.
Maple Syrup: Beginning Commercial Production - Articles

Updated: August 26, 2017

Maple Syrup: Beginning Commercial Production

General Overview

Maple sugaring, like any other business, should begin with a business plan. This plan should include the main resources available to the future producers. These resources include time (and hopefully alot of it), knowledge and finances. Setting up a small sugaring operation will be expensive. Reasonable expectations of income and cost should be taken into consideration. Costs of equipment (which are long-term investments and pretty much fixed costs) should be projected several years into the future. A five or ten year period is reasonable. Income will very greatly between years. Some years will have tremendous production and other years will be much less productive. While income should be expected every year, profits beyond the initial investment will not be realized for several years. In addition, few producers will be able to survive off of the sugaring season alone. Sugaring is better as a part of a diverisified farming operation or a supplemental income for seasonally employed tradesmen (i.e. construction etc.).

The Sugarbush

You should assess the number of tappable trees and overall stand condition when developing your business plan. This factor may sound simple, but prior to considering a sugaring operation, most people know very little about their woodlots. A professional forester or an Extension Agent may be able to help you with stand evaluation for use as a sugarbush. Determination of sap sugar content will be helpful at this stage. You should drill a small diameter hole (in spring or fall) and extracting a sap sample. The sugar content of this sap can be measured most easily with a sap refractometer. While this step is not essential, it will allow you to determine which of your trees are the sweetest or the converse, which are the least sweet. Furthermore, this will increase both your efficiency and profitability. These trees should be semi-permanently marked (e.g. with a painted number or aluminum tag) and a record should be kept.

Walking the stand after leafout will allow you to assess the stocking (number of trees relative to site capacity) of the stand. Considerations of stand thinning can be easily made at this stage. If a tubing system is to be used, low vigor trees and those to be involved in thinning may be avoided in a tapping operation. These trees usually produce sap with lower sugar content. Low sugar content sap is less profitable or even unprofitable. Wood resulting from these thinning can be sold or used as fuel wood for the evaporator.

Tapping

If other sugar maple producers are operating in your area, the first step in developing a sugarbush may be to contact this producer and see if he/she is willing to purchase sap. While this may not be feasible, it will allow a new producer to concentrate on establishing a sugarbush. Tapping and sap collections require 1/3 to 1/2 of the labor involved in the who sugaring process.

Two types of collection systems exist for maple producers: traditional and tubing. The traditional tapping system involves drilling a tap, tapping in a spile and then putting a bucket (or bag) on the spile. This system is only suited to producers with a small number of taps (< 100 trees), in areas with almost no slope or areas with very dispersed sugar maple trees.

Tapping involves laying out a system where a main line that connects to a storage lank is established and numberous lateral lines are attached. This mainline can be suspended (visual demonstration of Aerial Tubing installation) or placed on the ground. Most new systems are Aerial Tubing systems. Lateral lines are usually place so as to access 10 trees or less. Droplines are attached to the lateral lines and then to spiles that are placed into the tapholes in the trees. If you numbered your trees intitially, this number system can be used to deliniate the location of each lateral line. Because each lateral is prepared for a specific set of trees, reusing the correct lateral is essential. Tubing systems can frequently be created more cheaply than the traditional bucket system. These systems can be operated by either gravity or mechanical vacuums. Gravity systems are initially cheaper; however, sap flow is higher on mechanical vacuum systems. Systems should be designed so that future alteration, especially mechanization of the vacuum, can be made.

Purchasing sugaring equipment is essentially a balance between large, faster equipment and cost. A producer that has "more time than money" may prefer to buy a smaller evaporator; however, if this producer wants to expand at a later date, he/she will have to buy a whole new evaporator. Additionally, sugaring is labor intensive. Rates of production can range from about a quart an hour for a small, hobby model to several gallons an hour for large models (see table below). If you suspect that your time will be limited, you should probably buy the larger model. If you stay in the business for 10 years, you will probably make up and difference in cost in saved labor.

Size of evaporators and capacity for processing of sap per hour (for Waterloo Evaporators, from Waterloo and Small 1997 catalog). Note: we are not endorsing this product, but just using its rate of evaporation as a rough guideline.
Evaporator SizeCapacity (gallons/hour)
2' x 6'30
2' x 7'35
2' x 8'40
2' x 10'50
2.5' x 8'50
2.5' x 10'60
2.5' x 12'75

Authors

Bioenergy Agroforestry Forest Economics and Finance International Forestry Forest Extension Non Timber Forest Products

More by Michael Jacobson, Ph.D.