Michael Farrell, Walnut and Birch Tree Syrups
Michael Farrell joined the Department of Natural Resources in 2004. His educational background includes a BS from Hamilton College in economics/environmental studies and an MPS in forest and natural resource management from SUNY-College of Environmental Science and Forestry. He currently serves as Director of the Uihlein Forest- Cornell`s Sugar Maple Research & Extension Field Station in Lake Placid, NY.
Caryn Hartglass: Hello everybody, I’m Caryn Hartglass and you’re listening to It’s All About Food. How are you today on this March 18, 2014? It’s going to be a sweet half hour. The first part of the program, very, very sweet. I mentioned last week, the week before, maybe the week before that, that I was invited to give a talk to about two hundred cattle producers about animal agriculture’s contribution to climate change, so I’ve been very focused lately about what’s going on with our environment and it’s scary. But when I hear about things that are good for the environment I get very excited, and that’s why I brought my next guest on to the program. I’m going to bring him on right now and he’s here with me in the studio. Michael Farrell serves as the director of Cornell University’s Uihlein Forest, a maple syrup research and extension field station in Lake Placid, New York. There, he taps approximately 5,000 maples, 600 birch trees, and a couple dozen black walnut and butternut trees every year. He has authored dozens of articles on maple syrup production and forest management and often presents to maple producer and landowner organizations. Michael earned his bachelor’s degree in economics from Hamilton College, his master’s in forestry from SUNY-ESF, and his PhD in natural resources from Cornell University. Thanks for joining me today, Michael.
Michael Farrell: Thanks for having me on. Glad to be here.
Caryn: You also authored a book—which I just got, thank you very much and I look forward to reading—The Sugermaker’s Companion: An Integrated Approach to Producing Syrup from Maple, Birch, and Walnut Trees. Let’s talk about syrup. And sap. And sugar. I’m very excited because in my climate change research I learned lots of horrible things about trees. We have deforested about half of the planet’s trees. That doesn’t bode well for the carbon cycle balance, sucking the CO2 out of the environment and putting oxygen into the environment. We need trees, and we need more of them. I get excited when I hear about people that can actually make some money off of trees while they’re doing something good for the environment. We all love syrup. We all love sweet things. Let’s first talk about syrup or sap and where it comes from, how the tree makes it and just… I’m turning it over to you.
Michael: Sure. That is one of the great things about maple syrup production or tapping birch or walnut trees as well. You can tap these trees year after year, they continue to grow, sequester that carbon, produce the oxygen—all the benefits of trees—and rather than having to cut them down in order to get value out of them you keep them living and tap them every spring. That sap, that flows through these trees in the springtime, is what we collect for that short period of time—basically now, March and April is the prime time for the sap collection. With maple syrup production, we just collect the sap and basically boil it down ‘til we get syrup.
Caryn: Okay. Sap. What is it? What is it doing inside the tree?
Michael: Kind of an analogy that I… It’s not the perfect analogy, but something that people can relate to is just like we have blood, trees have sap. That sap carries the sugars—the food for the tree—and minerals and nutrients and all this good stuff in the sap, all the stuff that the tree needs for its own growth and health and survival, that’s what’s in the sap. We are fortunate enough to be able to have these trees with this sap and to be able to collect a small amount of it. But we’re only taking a small percentage of the sap out of the tree. Just like when we go to give blood, we’re only giving maybe a pint of blood. We don’t take more than we think the estimate is about five percent of the sap out of a tree.
Caryn: That sap. Does it exist all year long? Is it in the tree all year long?
Michael: The trees do have a type of sap in them all year, but the xylem sap that flows in the spring is only during that time that we can collect it.
Caryn: The xylem sap—is it more liquidy? Watery?
Michael: It’s all watery. Sap is almost all water. This is what’s available that we can easily collect. It’s that time of the year that it’s running in the trees because of the weather conditions as well. It’s the freezing and thawing of that sap in maple trees during basically February, March, and April when you have the right weather conditions that causes the sap to come out of any type of wound in the tree, such as a tap hole.
Caryn: You brought up something important: freezing and thawing. This year it’s been pretty cold, but last year was a pretty warm winter, if I remember. We were all being told that maple syrup was going to be hard to find and it wasn’t going to be abundant, it was going to be expensive. It’s already expensive, but it was going to be worse. What happens there?
Michael: It was actually two years ago we had the very warm winter.
Caryn: Okay, it was two years ago.
Michael: Luckily, prices didn’t spike because there was a reserve of syrup from the years before that can back-supply seventy-five percent of the syrup in the world. They keep syrup from year to year. They’ll have a reserve—a strategic reserve, they call it—so that if you have a bad year, based on the weather, you can still supply the markets with syrup that you have collected in previous years ‘cause syrup doesn’t go bad. As long as you process it and preserve it correctly in the right method, it can last forever.
Caryn: So we can always have pancakes.
Michael: That’s the plan. Or all the other things you can do with syrup, so it’s not just for pancakes, right?
Caryn: Right. Now, what was interesting what I learned today is that it’s just not maple that makes syrup.
Michael: Right, yeah, exactly. The birch and the walnut trees also have the sap running through them in the springtime. The walnut sap runs at the same time as maple. It’s based on that freezing and thawing, to get the sap to flow in the walnuts. The birch is after maple and walnuts are done. When the season is wrapped up, say in mid-April for maple and walnut, then you can tap your birch trees and they also have a delicious and nutritious sap that you can collect.
Caryn: So do you know why we’re so focused on maple and we’ve kind of forgotten about maple and birch?
Michael: Walnut and birch.
Caryn: Oh I’m sorry, walnut and birch.
Michael: No, that’s okay. We never really knew much about walnut. People haven’t really ever developed that as a product. It’s always been maybe a small niche thing that some people were doing, but it’s never taken off the way maple has. I think one of the main reasons behind that is the fact that you don’t get as much sap. With maples, you get a lot of sap and the sap is sweet. It’s two percent sugar on average. The walnut sap is also maybe about two percent sugar, but you don’t get as much. If you’re going to choose just one tree to tap, why not the maple because you can get more sap with the same amount of work to try to collect it. Maybe that’s why maple took off and not walnut, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do walnut. If you have a lot of walnuts, then…
Caryn: Tap them.
Michael: They also make them. You got to try some of that walnut syrup?
Caryn: Yeah, it was delicious.
Michael: Yeah, great stuff. Or you can combine them together. If you have maples and walnuts, make a maple-walnut syrup.
Caryn: Another thing I was fascinated about was—what you told us today—how many trees there are out there that are not even being tapped. It’s the tip of the iceberg, what we’re—the tip of the melting iceberg, of course, what we’re tapping to get syrup from.
Michael: In the U.S. alone, we have about two billion potentially tappable maple trees. Sugar maple and red maple, those are the top two species. Sugar maple’s the best for sugaring, that’s why it’s got its name sugar maple, ‘cause you get the most sap and the sweetest sap. But with red maple—you can also tap those, they’re actually more abundant in our country than sugar maple—they might not produce quite as much sap and the sugar content might be a little lower, but they’re perfectly good for sugaring. We have two billion of these trees. We’re using far less than one percent of them right now. We have this incredible opportunity to tap more of them to produce more maple syrup and all the other great things you can make from maple and consume more of that. Our per capita consumption of pure maple in the U.S. is about three ounces per person per year.
Caryn: Oh. That’s nothing.
Michael: Exactly. Most of that comes from Canada.
Caryn: You know why it’s only three ounces? Because most people are having Aunt Jemima and Log Cabin® Syrup which is full of high fructose corn syrup and tastes like crap.
Michael: But that’s because it’s so much cheaper. When we know that we’re consuming too much of that, we don’t need as much high fructose corn syrup in the diet as we’re getting. I don’t think anybody’s going to argue otherwise. Even though pure maple is more expensive, I think that’s a good thing because we have so much high fructose corn syrup in our diet ‘cause it’s so cheap. When food is cheap, it’s put in a lot of things and it’s added to so many different foods. If we use pure maple like we used to, you don’t have as much sugar, and it’s a healthier sugar, and it’s a local one, and less environmental impact. There’s lots of good reasons why we should be producing and consuming pure maple.
Caryn: That definitely fits into my agenda because I would like people to get back to being a little more sophisticated about what they’re eating, care about where their food comes from, and have a cleaner palette where they can really discern different flavors and tell the difference between high fructose corn syrup “maple syrup” and real maple syrup. Some people can’t even tell.
Michael: Exactly. I’m sure your listeners probably have a more refined palette.
Caryn: Of course they do!
Michael: Yes. But the average American doesn’t.
Caryn: Yeah, it’s sad.
Michael: The average American’s just looking for maybe the cheapest topping for their pancakes.
Caryn: Right. And more. Big volume and expensive. It’s sad because it’s affecting our health, it’s affecting the environment. I talk about treats, and I haven’t talked about treats in a while I don’t think, so it’s a good time to talk about treats. Treats should be a treat, what does that mean? Not all the time, so it’s special. Then when you have it, it’s just sheer bliss instead of always consuming all this sweet stuff that’s so bad for us. You don’t have that contrast.
Michael: I think maple sap is that spring treat. We had that historically in our culture. You think about people for hundreds of years ago were just trying to get through the winter. They were not having sugary soda beverages all the time. It was bare bones survival through the winter, and it was fairly bland food and they were just making it through. At the end of winter, let’s say you’re sick of eating the same bland food you’ve had all winter. It’s finally nice and warm out. The sap is running in the maple trees. You’re drinking that maple sap.
Caryn: And it’s delicious. I loved it.
Michael: And it’s delicious and it’s sweet and it’s a spring treat.
Caryn: I had the birch sap today.
Michael: You had the birch syrup today.
Caryn: The birch syrup. You mean the one that was like water?
Michael: Well, the maple sap, the one that we drank like water, that was maple sap.
Caryn: Okay. And the vertical water was maple sap?
Michael: That’s maple sap. Yes.
Caryn: Okay. It was all good.
Michael: Both are maple trees, but you can also drink the birch sap and the birch sap will run later. There’s not nearly as much sugar in it. It’s not as much of a treat, for instance.
Caryn: No, but most people don’t drink water. They don’t drink enough water, and they should, okay. This drinking sap—which I never thought about doing, I’m very excited about drinking sap folks—it’s mostly water, it’s got some choice minerals in it. It’s not really where you want to go to for your minerals. You want to get your minerals from your dark leafy green vegetables and some other foods, but they’re still nice to have them there, can’t hurt. It’s just a nice subtle flavor—because when I drink water I always like to squeeze something into it, just give it a little kick—and this is just naturally flavored, just the lightest subtle hint of sweetness. Was a beautiful drink.
Michael: Yeah. I’m glad that there’s lots of companies now getting into bottling it and making it available for lots of people. One time we were doing a taste test and I heard somebody say, “Well I don’t even like water, but I love maple water.” So if we can get more people to drink water, which this basically is, then we’re all going to be better off.
Caryn: It’s a win-win. Now what about other trees? Do almond trees make sap?
Michael: I’ve never tapped an almond tree, so I don’t know, but it’s potential.
Caryn: I’m just wondering how the water supply connects to the sap in the tree, because on the West Coast they’re having this serious drought. How does that affect sap?
Michael: Soil moisture is a limiting factor in the amount of sap you get out of the tree. We know that from maple research here in the northeast. If you’re having a significant drought in California on the West Coast, wherever, that’s going to affect the health of the trees and is going to limit the amount of sap in the trees and therefore the health of the tree.
Caryn: Are these trees irrigated or they’re just naturally in good water places?
Michael: Our forest that we collect… Maple sap comes from wild forests, which are not irrigated, it’s just whatever Mother Nature provides. All the almond trees in the West though, of course are irrigated.
Caryn: Okay, now the sap in the tree. In the springtime it’s really flowing, and then what happens? Does it dry out, it goes into the leaves, it goes back into the roots, where does it go?
Michael: It’s constantly present in the tree throughout the year, but not in a form that we can easily get into. For maple sap, it’s only that limited time in late winter, early spring that it’s present in the xylem and we can drill into the tree and easily get it.
Caryn: Okay, we talked about this earlier, and I want to talk about it now with everybody listening. I had heard some things about, since I’m a vegan, how some things in the process of making maple syrup may or may not be vegan. I remember hearing that some people use butter and some people use some sort of pork fat, and I never really understood what it was used for. And you can tell us.
Michael: Yes. When you’re boiling the sap, it foams up a lot. Your pans on your evaporator where you’re boiling it are only so tall. You could get so much foam that it starts to boil over, and it comes out of your pans, out of your evaporator pans. So you put in a little bit of defoamer in order to keep the foam down, to keep your boiling sap within the pans. Traditionally, people who aren’t vegan would put some type of pork fat or bacon or suspend something above the evaporator so that if the boiling sap got up to a certain level it would hit that piece of bacon or pork fat and the fat molecules in that would get into the foam and it knocks the foam down.
Caryn: It would melt and drip into the foam, I guess.
Michael: Exactly. That is hardly ever used anymore.
Caryn: That’s good.
Michael: Yeah. Some people are still doing it. There are lots of backyard sugar-makers who aren’t vegans and do it that kind of way or might put some butter or cream in. Any type of fat molecule will knock the foam down. Most people are using a commercially available defoamer that’s just a chemically synthesized product that acts like a fat molecule. You use a tiny bit of it. It doesn’t even show up in the syrup and it works very well. That’s what people pretty much use today, that’s the standard. Unless you’re an organically certified maple syrup producer. Pretty much the only noticeable difference in producing organic maple syrup versus conventional maple syrup is the type of defoamer you can use. The organic producers have to use an organic safflower oil or canola oil or sunflower or some type of vegetable oil to keep the foam down.
Caryn: Now who knew that? I didn’t know that. That’s really interesting information. Now that leads into the next question, which is organic maple syrup versus conventional, and I’m getting the feeling that most conventional growers don’t use herbicides and pesticides or very little? What’s the story there?
Michael: Exactly. Most maple syrup comes from wild forests never treated with any type of pesticide or herbicide or fertilizer. It’s just the woods. There’s nothing more organic than just our natural wild forest. This is just the pure sap flowing through those trees. Never anywhere even close to pesticides or herbicides or fertilizers.
Caryn: So if we wanted to spend $16 or $17 on a 32-oz. jug of maple syrup, conventional, instead of $18 or $19 on organic, it would be okay.
Michael: I think that would be fine, yeah.
Caryn: They’re all expensive!
Michael: The main difference is that it’s pure maple and not the artificial. The biggest difference is pure maple syrup versus the Aunt Jemima and all the artificial, the difference between conventionally produ… I wouldn’t even say conventionally produced, I would say not certified and certified. There’s just a lot of maple producers who, for whatever reason, they don’t want to go through the paperwork in getting certified and the cost of doing that. But it doesn’t mean their syrup isn’t really organic.
Caryn: What about Grade A and Grade B?
Michael: So there are different grades of the syrup based on the color and the flavor of the syrup. The color and the flavor of the syrup will change a lot during the course of the season. You might start out making the light syrup, the more delicate, mild flavor, and by the end of the season you’re making darker syrups with a stronger flavor. That’s the Grade B. There’s three grades of Grade A—the light amber, medium amber, and dark amber—and then one grade of Grade B.
Caryn: I always like the more intense flavors. But somehow I feel like because it’s called Grade B or Grade C, it’s not as good quality.
Michael: That’s why we’re actually changing the international grading system. Glad you asked about that. It’s already started in Vermont this year; in New York, it’s going to start next year.
Caryn: That was a bad marketing concept.
Michael: I think the maple producers might not have been as forward-looking when they developed that, because at the time when this was all developed, maple producers pride themselves on making the lightest syrup. That’s what maple producers tend to like, is the lightest. It used to be very difficult to make the light syrup. You had to be a really good sugar maker and do everything right to make a light syrup. Now with technological advances and sap collection and processing, almost anybody can make light syrup. There’s a lot more light syrup being made. When we do consumer taste tests, we realize that people like the dark stuff. So why were we calling something Grade B just because it’s the darker syrup? There’s a lot of people who know that Grade B is more flavorful and that’s what they look out for, but nobody goes to the store looking for Grade B eggs. So why would you look for Grade B maple syrup if you don’t really know? Everything’s going to be Grade A from now on.
Caryn: We got to taste some today, and I’m looking forward to that future technology where we’re able to taste and smell over the air, some kind of virtual scratch-and-sniff or something, but we don’t have that right now. So you’re just going to have to listen to the descriptions. I got to try some today, and I was in the minority. I liked what no one else liked the best. That was the birch syrup. I wrote here, it had like a molasses flavor and color and consistency, but it was a little fruity, it was a little tart. I just like the lingering aftertaste flavor. I kinda went nuts over it.
Michael: Sure. It’s great stuff. Most people aren’t used to birch syrup. It’s way different than maple syrup, as you noticed, and has definitely those unique qualities. I often hear people describe it as “fruity molasses.” Actually, when we’re boiling the sap, when we’re making the syrup, people come into our sugar house, think we’re making raspberry jam because it smells just like raspberries. We’re in our sugar house, that fruity kind of aroma and flavor to it. It’s great as an ingredient for cooking. I think there’s great opportunities for people to experiment with different recipes with birch syrup. It always should be used as a cooking ingredient; it’s not a pancake topping.
Caryn: I have to confess that I rarely use maple syrup on my pancakes. I don’t use a lot of sugar in things. I tend to just take blueberries or strawberries and make a compote out of them, that’s what I put on my pancakes. But that’s me.
Michael: I should say, I don’t even eat pancakes hardly at all either.
Caryn: But I do like— Oh no, we eat a lot of pancakes. Vegan pancakes, gluten-free. There’s wonderful pancake recipes on my Responsible Eating and Living website so if you’re getting a hankering for pancakes right now, we’ve got so many great pancake recipes and you might even try them. I’ve got Chestnut Flour Pancakes and Cornmeal Flour Pancakes and Buckwheat Flour Pancakes…
Michael: I will have to try that.
Caryn: They’re all excellent. I bet they’d be even better with some of these syrups. But the walnut syrup? I love walnuts, and there was just like a hint of that walnutty flavor in the syrup. Fabulous
Michael: Yeah. Definitely.
Caryn: Okay, we just have a few minutes left. I wondered, what other trees can be tapped for this syrup? I was thinking tropical trees.
Michael: The only one in the tropics that I know of, and of course I focus here on the Northeast, but I have heard of people tapping palm trees. They climb up to the top of the palm trees and cut off the inflorescence and a sap comes out which is very high in sugar. I think it’s about 10-12% sugar. Because it’s in the tropics, it’ll ferment rapidly. So they either turn it into a wine or they feed it directly to pigs.
Michael: I’m sure you not too into that.
Caryn: I’m not sure where that all fits in sustainable palm scenario, which is a big hot-button these days.
Michael: I’m not sure either. Our method is a lot more sustainable. We’re just drilling a small hole in the trunk of a tree and the tree continues to grow year after year.
Caryn: What I love… Coconut water’s becoming very popular here in the states and I really like to promote things that are locally sourced and locally grown. So the fact that we can have birch water or maple water, which is somewhat similar to coconut water, and we grow it right here on the East Coast…
Michael: Sure. We’ve done taste tests, and people prefer the maple water over coconut water, very much so. It’s got a much more pleasant taste to it. It doesn’t have quite as many minerals in it, but there are a lot of minerals in both of them. And there’s lower sugar in the maple water. Coconut water has usually two to three times the amount of calories from sugar as maple water.
Caryn: I don’t know how often this is happening, and it’s probably not something you’re as excited about as I am, but you were talking about how there have been some dairy trucks that have been repurposed to transport maple water?
Michael: Not repurposed, but just during that time of the year.
Caryn: They borrow them.
Michael: Yeah. They’re usually hauling milk 350 days out of the year, and for two weeks they might be hauling maple sap.
Caryn: Right, ‘cause I’m always looking for alternative careers for all of those dairy farmers.
Michael: Oh, okay. Right.
Caryn: Because I would like milk to go away.
Michael: You should know that in the sugaring industry, we’ve borrowed a lot of our technology from the dairy farm. We use a lot of their old stainless steel tanks. Their old milk tanks are great for collecting maple sap.
Caryn: I have no problem with that, repurposing all that stuff for better purposes in my opinion. Okay, so we have five minutes left and I’m just checking my notes for some things that I thought were interesting that I don’t want to forget. Here in the United States, somehow we became very limited with what we were eating. Big Ag has been responsible for that because they like to make things efficient and keep things easier and easier to make, so we’re getting less and less variety of foods. That’s a shame because there’s just so many wonderful foods out there that we should all be experiencing and some of them are local in our own neighborhood that we don’t get to experience anymore. But you were talking about how birch is consumed; birch water is consumed in many places around the world.
Michael: Sure. It’s a traditional drink throughout many places in Europe and Scandinavia and Russia, Japan, Korea, China. There are a lot of birch trees in those parts of the world, in the temperate and boreal forests. They don’t have as many maples as we do. There might be some, but their forests are much more dominated by birch, so they collect the birch sap and drink it as a spring tonic. Very little of it gets made into syrup. I actually just met a young lady from the Ukraine this past weekend who told me she drank birch sap her entire life and never knew that anybody processed it into syrup. She came here to the U.S. and she’d never seen birch syrup, but she drank birch sap every year. She said everybody does that over there.
Caryn: I thought I wrote it down and I can’t find it, but there’s a fast starting today, a week long fast with maple water
Caryn: Now, I know a lot of my listeners are into all kinds of funky fasts…
Michael: Sure. This is the time of the year. A lot of people know about The Master Cleanse Diet, where you’re basically taking maple syrup, lemon juice, cayenne pepper, making a tea out of that. You’re almost trying to recreate a maple water, maple sap fast. If you’re into that kind of stuff, rather than doing it The Master Cleanse, you might just want to just drink the sap. I know a guy in Michigan who found out about this. He started drinking sap, he says he feels great. I’m sure he does, I mean, this is one of the times of the year I feel the best is when I’m drinking the sap out of the trees. There’s many days—I’m not a big faster, but sometimes I’m just working so much during the day I don’t have time to eat and I’m just drinking sap all day, and I feel great. It keeps the energy up and I highly recommend it.
Caryn: Yeah. I love the idea. Okay, we’re out of time! Thank you so much for joining me, Michael!
Michael: Thanks for having me on.
Caryn: I really enjoyed tasting all these things. I’m going to look forward to some of these products, finding them more frequently out and about.
Michael: Definitely. We’ll be doing as much as we can.
Caryn: Okay. You’re listening to It’s All About Food. I’m Caryn Hartglass. Go visit responsibleeatingandliving.com while we’re on the break if you have a minute and check out my pancake recipes! We’ll be right back.
Transcribed May 15, 2014 by JC.