An Untapped Industry

Putting Maple on the Map in the Lower Midwest

Maple syrup production is most known in the Northeastern United States, but is there a potential maple industry in the lower Midwest? Hannah Hemmelgarn, assistant program director of the Center for Agroforestry, recently received a grant totaling $473,481 for the project, Putting Maple on the Map in the Lower Midwest, to explore just that. This project involves partners in Missouri and Illinois to understand the regional potential for tree sugaring, from sap production to syrup sales.

“The project has multiple areas of focus,” Hemmelgarn said. “There are both socioeconomic and ecological components, which we are integrating for a more complete picture of maple sap opportunities and constraints here.”

This project is led by a diverse set of stakeholders in the lower Midwest including current maple producers, agricultural economists, foresters, and other natural resources professionals in addition to the team at the Center for Agroforestry, which is a Program of Distinction in the University of Missouri College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources (CAFNR).

“Collectively we recognized that the maple industry is untapped in this region,” Hemmelgarn said. “Our hope is to come together to improve our understanding of the economics and production potential of maple products in Missouri and Illinois.

“In growing awareness of this potential market, we are bringing together current maple producers, technical service providers and forest landowners through this Maple Awareness Program (MAP) that is designed to simultaneously grow an awareness of the importance of forest management for ecological health outcomes as well.”

Currently, there is not a well-established maple industry in the lower Midwest, although there has been a growing interest in small-scale syrup production among forest landowners. Upper Midwest states like Michigan and Wisconsin have more established maple industries, she said.

Historically, the forest industry in Missouri has prioritized management of red oaks, white oaks and black walnut. However, in parts of the state such as along major river corridors, there are many sugar maples and silver maples. In fact, in Missouri and Southern Illinois alone, there are approximately 6.3 million maples (sugar, red and silver maples). With appropriate management, these trees could serve a dual function of producing a marketable product and enhancing ecosystem services, Hemmelgarn said.

“It’s a rare thing for foresters to manage for maples here, in part because we have a unique and valuable black walnut and oak resource that’s generally preferred. But managing for maples doesn’t mean we can’t also manage for oak and walnut,” Hemmelgarn said.

Research is being conducted at the Baskett Wildlife Research and Education Center, one of CAFNR’s Agricultural Experiment Stations, as well as two sites in Illinois (Dixon Springs Agricultural Center and the McCulley Heritage Project). All sites have existing sugar bush areas being managed for syrup production.

The Baskett Center has been tapping trees since 2012, and over the past four years has collected data on individual trees. Each time sap is collected, data such as how much sap is produced and how much sugar is in the sap are recorded, in addition to characteristics of each individual tree.

“In the bigger picture syrup production, we are on the western edge of the range of sugar maples,” said Ben Knapp, associate professor in the School of Natural Resources. “We typically have an earlier season compared to the Northeast or Canada because of climate patterns.

“We are exploring if there are any predictors based on individual tree characteristics that relate to how much sap is produced or sugar in the sap. We then can look at that throughout the year in the different collection periods and relate those factors to weather patterns.”

In past findings, there has been a positive relationship between the amount of sap produced and the diameter of the tree. However, some trees no matter the size still produce little to no sap.

“In a given area there is a lot of variability in production tree by tree,” said Knapp. “Some of that seems to be related to tree characteristics (such as size) but some of it’s not. If we can identify which trees are bad producers, which we have at Baskett, then we can either not tap those or use that to inform forest management by cutting them down in a thinning operation.

“By giving more space to trees that are good producers, they should respond with increased growth and hopefully produce more sap.”

Since data have been collected for several years, they can look year by year to see if there are any differences or consistencies. For this new project, this same research will continue but expand to look at more characteristics of the trees like crown size and conditions within in an area, including soils.

“We have a lot of maple trees that aren’t utilized,” said Knapp. “There is definitely an opportunity to develop syrup production in our region and hopefully this project will help figure out the best way to do that.”

The project also will have an educational and outreach component, which will come into play towards the later part of the project. Using research collected at CAFNR’s Baskett Center and the research sites in Illinois, information will be shared through the development of a financial decision support tool and other technical guides specific to lower-Midwest maple management and sap production.

“The timing for this grant felt right,” said Hemmelgarn. “There has been a growing interest from Missouri maple producers to utilize networking for information exchange, and to help people that have an interest in maple syrup production but don’t have the peer support or infrastructure to get started.”