Cornell's maple experts aid an ancient industry
I've got a really dorky joke about lichen, if you guys want to hear it." Mike Farrell is in the Adirondack woods, leading a group from a local boarding school (a dozen environmental science students, their teacher, her two dogs) on a hike on a blazingly beautiful day in October. The director of Cornell's Uihlein Sugar Maple Research and Extension Field Station has been giving the students lessons in tree identification—how to tell a spruce from a fir, a sugar maple from its red cousin—when the subject of lichen comes up. Although the teens' enthusiasm for the joke is muted, he tells it anyway; it does, indeed, prove to be really dorky. "Freddy Fungus and Annie Algae got together and took a lichen to each other," the boyish-looking Farrell says to a chorus of groans. "They always went out on a limb for each other, but after a while their marriage was on the rocks."
The group is hiking through part of Uihlein's 200 acres, the Lake Placid outpost where the University does much of its maple research—helping the industry improve its forest management, tapping techniques, and methods of syrup production. The station was established in 1965 on land donated by Henry Uihlein II (pronounced "ee-line"), an heir to the Schlitz Brewing fortune who moved to Lake Placid as a young man seeking relief from tuberculosis. Cornell taps 4,500 trees in its Adirondack sugarbush, collecting sap via thirty-five miles of plastic tubing. "Sometimes squirrels will chew on the tubing," says Farrell, one of the station's two full-time staffers, "or branches will fall on it and knock the lines down." In addition to leading school and visitor tours, Farrell—who lives in a cabin at the station—is responsible for overseeing an operation that produces more than 1,000 gallons of syrup a year; it takes forty gallons of sap, the product of four trees, to make one gallon of syrup.
On campus, the Cornell Maple Program is run by Brian Chabot, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology who directs it on a half-time basis; there's also a full-time maple Extension associate in the Department of Natural Resources and an Extension forester who devotes about a quarter of his time to maple. "We have more bodies than we've ever had," says Chabot, whose office is located in Little Rice, a tiny building on the Ag Quad where four rooms have been carved out of a former poultry feed house with no running water. "We also have what we call our maple team, who are the county Extension educators around the state." The program sponsors conferences and workshops on topics like tree management, making maple confections, and introductory sugaring. "The thing I love about the maple business is that it is an ancient industry," Chabot says. "It was here before the Europeans arrived; we learned how to do it from the Indians. And some elements of the basic process are not different—you get the sap, you boil it down, and you eat it—but in terms of technology, there's hardly anything we're doing today that we were doing the same way fifteen or twenty years ago. There's a continuing evolution of methods and tools. It's surprisingly dynamic, for something that has this traditional core."
On top of his work at Uihlein, Farrell is a Cornell PhD candidate in natural resources. (He also holds a master's in forestry from SUNY.) For his dissertation research, he's studying the growth potential of New York State's $13 million-a-year maple industry, exploring economic, political, and social factors. He laments that although New York has more maples than any other state—some 300 million outside the protected Adirondack Park—it taps less than 1 percent of them. "We don't have the same recognition and marketing potential that Vermont has," he says, noting that the Green Mountain State actually ranks seventh in maple inventory. In New York, he says, sugaring is a graying industry, with many of its practitioners over sixty. "What we need to do," he says, "is train the next generation of maple producers."
Other threats to the industry include global warming—Farrell notes that the sugaring season now starts a week earlier and ends ten days earlier than it did four decades ago—and invasive species such as the Asian longhorn beetle. But with maple prices through the roof following a poor season in Québec (which produces 80 percent of world supplies) and European and Asian countries getting a taste for maple as an "exotic luxury product," he says the state's maple industry has great potential, in terms of both economics and ecology. "It's a sustainable use of our forests," he says. "It ties people to the land, connects us to our history. People can live off the land, make a great product, and do it year after year."
A regular stop on the Lake Placid tourist circuit, Uihlein gets as many as 4,000 visitors a year—mainly during sugaring season, which runs from late February to mid-April. (The station's new visitor center sports rich maple paneling bearing the scars of countless taps, filled in with epoxy.) In addition to its Adirondack sugaring operation, the University taps 2,000 trees in its Arnot Teaching and Research Forest fifteen miles southwest of Ithaca, producing 200 to 500 gallons of syrup depending on the season. Official Cornell syrup is sold at Uihlein, at shops on campus, and via mail order, with proceeds supporting maple extension and research programs; current prices range from $17.50 for a pint to $53.50 for a gallon.
Like wine connoisseurs, maple aficionados rate syrup on a flavor wheel, with notes ranging from citrus and clove to "burnt sugar" and "wet wood." Chabot describes the Uihlein syrup as having strong elements of brown sugar and vanilla, with a distinct maple flavor. "There aren't typically any off-flavors, the musky or chemical flavors that some have," he says. "If I gave you a Québec syrup and an Adirondack syrup, you'd notice a pronounced difference."
— Beth Saulnier