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Sap Discovery Could Turn Syrup-Making Upside Down

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Last year researchers at the University of Vermont announced something that could change the way we think about Vermont — or at least how it produces its famous maple syrup.

The time-honored method calls for inserting a tap near the bottom of a tall, mature maple tree. At the end of February, the tree thaws, and voila: Sap starts flowing out the spigot at the bottom.

But in 2010, these researchers were testing ways to gather sap from a mature trees when they noticed something unusual.

One of the trees was missing most of its top, but the sap was still flowing. And flowing. And flowing.

That meant sap didn't flow exclusively top-to-bottom from older trees, which is what everyone had thought — for centuries.

Sap was coming up, from the ground. The size of the tree was irrelevant.

Laura Sorkin, writer and the co-owner of a large maple syrup operation in northern Vermont, described the study in Modern Farmer magazine.

The researchers tested the discovery on maple saplings growing near their lab, Sorkin tells NPR's Rachel Martin. They lopped off the tops, capped them with a tube and put them under vacuum pressure.

The small trees produced large amounts of sap, proving you don't need old trees to make syrup.

"It had never occurred to anyone," Sorkin says. "It's just always been done this way."

The discovery means sugar makers could plant dense rows of saplings and harvest the sap, essentially creating a maple sugar farm.

"Aside from harvesting fish from the sea, pretty much everything else that we eat comes from neatly planted, nicely managed row crops grown in fields," Sorkin says. "Maple syrup, on the other hand, is something we head off into the wild forest to get. Vermonters, I think, would be very reluctant to give that up."

A sap farm would take the romance out of maple syrup harvesting, Sorkin says. "There's no reason why it shouldn't be the same for maple syrup," she says, "but still, everyone that I mention this to, their reaction, it's quite visceral: 'What? That's wrong!' "

With a farm system, sugar makers could expand their operations without buying expensive new land, Sorkin says. But the price of syrup would likely stay the same: Despite higher yields for smaller parcels of property, the investment in labor and equipment would be hefty.

But the taste would stay the same.

"I would just have to say, ambrosia," says Sorkin. "It's sweet, but it's so much more than that. When combined with things like cream and butter for something like a maple pudding, there's nothing else like it."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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