A College of Forestry team is on a mission to grow the maple industry in the PNW
The sugar maple has a reputation as a powerhouse for maple syrup production – but it’s not the only maple game around. An interdisciplinary team of researchers led by the College of Forestry is at the forefront of a movement to tap into Oregon’s bigleaf maple – and put the Pacific Northwest on the maple syrup map.
One of the main differences between maple trees is the concentration of sugar in the sap. Sap is a key part of making maple syrup, as it’s harvested from maple trees and then boiled into syrup. Acer saccharum, commonly known as the sugar maple, is loaded with sugar, as its name suggests, which is why it’s become such a go-to tree for maple syrup production.
Acer macophyllum, aka the bigleaf maple, has less sugar in its sap – usually about one-third to one-half as much as the sugar maple. But, modern technology is helping to render this a nonissue as material like food-grade vacuum tubing and equipment like reverse osmosis machines can cost effectively turn less sugary sap into syrup. A vacuum tubing system is able to extract a high volume of sap to work with and a commercial grade reverse osmosis removes 75 percent of the water from the sap, leaving concentrated sucrose and healthy nutrients behind.
“This technology is a gamechanger for the bigleaf maple,” says Eric Jones, the lead principal investigator for the project, and instructor and assistant professor of practice in the department of forest ecosystems and society.
“This is a great economic opportunity for Oregonians to build an industry and take advantage of the fact that bigleaf maples are especially abundant in western Oregon,” he says. “The Pacific Northwest bigleaf maple can produce a delicious, unique, and complex maple syrup, along with other products like nutritional maple water, delicious edible flowers, honey, beautiful lumber, figured wood, and firewood.”
Jones assembled a research team that spans the university and includes scholars and students from anthropology, food science, extension, geography, environmental arts and humanities, economics, ethnobiology and engineering. The College of Forestry is represented by graduate students Melanie Douville and John Scheb, professor emeritus Barb Lachenbruch who brings tree physiology expertise, associate professor Ron Reuter, who contributes his soil science expertise and, Badege Bishaw, retired College of Forestry courtesy faculty who specializes in agroforestry. Tiffany Fegel, a coordinator with OSU’s forestry and natural resources extension is also part of the team. Many other Oregon State University and off-campus experts contribute their knowledge and expertise including College of Liberal Arts professor Lisa Price (ethnobiology), College of Agricultural Sciences associate professor Joy Waite-Cusic (food safety) and senior faculty research assistant Ann Colonna (sensory testing) and Portland State University’s Rebecca McLain (ethnography).
The team was awarded a million dollars in funding through a pair of multiyear awards from the federal government to help establish a sustainable maple industry in Oregon. The project is focused on promoting bigleaf maple sap procurement and processing and providing training, tools and education to landowners interested in developing commercial enterprises. Additionally, the team is building a database system to map quantitative and qualitative data associated with the project.
The team also works to mitigate the risks involved with managing and sugaring bigleaf maples. Examples of project work includes incorporating food safety standards into commercial production, investigating how wildlife, certain diseases, and different climatic conditions affect bigleaf maple stands, the relation between soil and flavor, and creating business case studies that landowners can learn from.
“I think there’s a romance and infectious nature of tapping bigleaf maples and we’re trying to help landowners find the easiest and most economically and ecologically prudent path to get into “sugaring”, as they refer to it in maple industry,” says Jones.
With climate change ushering in greater uncertainty about the future of Pacific Northwest forests, the bigleaf team is interested in how the trees will fare under changing conditions.
“The bigleaf maple is a tenacious tree, as any forester will attest to, and perhaps it has a role to play in helping mitigate climate change,” says Jones.
While hotter and drier weather in some areas will negatively impact bigleaf maple populations, the trees may prove particularly resilient in certain microclimates. Jones is currently serving as an advisor on a pilot project in Washington, where the group is planting thousands of bigleaf maple trees on old dairy land as part of a carbon offset pilot program.
Jones has a long-time interest in wild foods and plants in Oregon and sees them as an avenue to promote stewardship activity and grow recreational and economic opportunities across the region. He led two national assessments on nontimber forest products for the U.S. Forest Service and was co-editor of the foundational text, “Nontimber Forest Products in the United States.” He hopes that a growing maple industry will invite people to develop a deeper appreciation for the land and find new ways to engage with a biodiverse, socially and ecologically complex environment using the bigleaf maple as a catalyst.
A major goal of the project is to grow a culture around maple in the Pacific Northwest, much like exists in the Northeast, where the sugar maple thrives. “Our team is diverse and inclusive and we are working hard to make bigleaf an inclusive, equitable economic opportunity for the state”, Jones says. In the spring of 2023, the bigleaf team will hold the first Oregon bigleaf maple festival and conference. Email Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information and check out the project’s public website Oregon Tree Tappers for updates and additional information about tapping bigleaf maple.