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It’s Maple Syrup Time, So Why the Whiff of French Fries?

By Sam Hooper Samuels (The New York Times) - April 30, 2007

Ah, early spring in Vermont. As temperatures warmed and the maples yielded up their annual crop of syrup, the hills and forests of the state were dotted with the familiar sights, sounds and smells of sugaring time.

But here at Sidelands Sugarbush in southeastern Vermont, the sweet aroma of maple syrup was mixed with a very different smell: the pungent odor of hot, used restaurant grease.

“Smell that?” asked Dan Crocker, owner of Sidelands, as he fired up his evaporator for a night of boiling on a recent April evening. “There’s that French fry smell.”

To do his bit to stave off global warming, Mr. Crocker this year converted his sugar house from regular fuel oil to used vegetable oil. Such oil, sometimes pumped into the tanks of environmentally friendly “grease cars,” can also be used as an alternative to heating oil. While a dwindling number of small, traditional sugar makers still boil their sap over wood fires, the majority burn heating oil, a fossil fuel that contributes to global warming.

Derived from living plants rather than fossil fuels, used vegetable oil adds little or no carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Mr. Crocker buys his from a company that collects it as a waste product from restaurants, then filters and processes out the dirt and impurities. By converting from traditional oil, Mr. Crocker is taking a stand for the environment.

As an industry, Vermont’s maple sugaring is highly vulnerable to climate change. Last year, of the 1.45 million gallons produced in the United States, nearly a third came from Vermont.

The entire year’s harvest of sap is gathered during a short season, which generally begins in March and ends by early April. The sap flows only during this brief window, when the temperatures rise above freezing during the day but plunge back below freezing at night.

That short season of daily freeze-thaw cycles is getting shorter.

“Right now, the season is starting about a week earlier throughout New England than it did 40 years ago,” said Timothy Perkins, director of the Proctor Maple Research Center at the University of Vermont, who has been warning of the challenge posed by global warming for a while now. “And it’s ending about 10 days earlier than it did. Over 40 years, we’ve lost a net of three days of the season.”

Three days may not sound like much. But because the season lasts only about a month, it represents about a 10 percent reduction in the crop.

Some long-range projections are even more dire, threatening not only the shortening of the maple season, but also the disappearance of most maples from this region.

“We’ve projected a very large loss of sugar maples across New England” by 2100, said Steven McNulty, co-chairman of the Forest Service’s Eastern Forest Environmental Threat Assessment Center. “Presumably these forests will move up into Canada, farther northward.”

Canada already dominates the international maple syrup market, producing more than seven million gallons a year. If Dr. McNulty’s projections prove accurate, within 100 years Canada will have a virtual monopoly on the maple sugar industry.

For Mr. Crocker, all this makes the stakes of climate change very high.

“I’m a hypocrite if I’m going to help global warming,” Mr. Crocker said. “Everyone says the first thing to go will be the southern Vermont maples.”

Converting from regular oil to used vegetable oil, known as U.V.O., was not an easy process. Like many sugar houses, Mr. Crocker’s is unheated, and vegetable oil congeals at low temperatures, making it too thick to flow through the burner’s pipes.

Vehicles that run on U.V.O. solve this problem by heating the oil. To convert his sugar house, Mr. Crocker installed an electric heater to warm the oil on its way to the burners. He still keeps a regular oil tank as a backup. He frequently starts the burner on regular oil, which ignites more easily, then switches to the grease after a few seconds of burning.

It was expensive, and as the first sugar maker to try it, Mr. Crocker was uncertain if it would even work. He got help in the form of an $8,900 government grant from the Agriculture Department’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program.

He learned of the grant only a few days before a deadline and stayed up all night filling out the grant application. To a sugar maker, though, all-nighters are just part of the job. At the height of the season, when the sap is flowing fast and the evaporators are running well past dark, Mr. Crocker averages about four hours of sleep a night.

For Mr. Crocker, saving the environment was not the only motivation. In this business of uncertain yields and razor-thin profit margins, the survivors keep their costs low. The vegetable oil is about a dollar a gallon less expensive than regular heating oil, though it may not remain so cheap if demand increases substantially.

“When I converted to vegetable oil, it was a business decision,” Mr. Crocker said.

Sugar making is a highly energy-intensive operation. It takes Mr. Crocker about seven-tenths of a gallon of oil to produce each gallon of syrup. His yearly crop averages 5,500 gallons, making Sidelands the largest maple syrup producer in southern Vermont. His fuel saving should average nearly $4,000, not an inconsiderable sum for a business with a total annual revenue of about $140,000.

While vegetable oil is his latest cost-saving measure, Mr. Crocker has built his business on efficiencies. His 300-acre farm includes six experimental stations, where he tries out new equipment and techniques to shave pennies off the process or squeeze a few more gallons out of the season.

He was among the first in the region to use reverse osmosis, a process that partially concentrates the sap before boiling it, greatly reducing the amount of fuel burned. He uses a vacuum system that sucks air from the plastic tubes carrying the sap from the trees to the sugar house. He is experimenting with a two-part spout that is part plastic and part stainless steel that retards the growth of bacteria.

This year, by combining the stainless steel spouts and the right level of vacuum suction, he coaxed sap from his trees in January, more than a full month ahead of the start of the season for most producers.

Although there is no such thing as a typical season in the sugaring business, 2007 has been genuinely freakish, shattering all the expected patterns. The sap started running late but then seemed never to stop. When many thought the season was over, and some hapless sugar makers had already pulled out their taps, an April cold snap started the sap flowing again.

In northernmost Vermont, extreme cold froze the sap up again. Generally, the lightest syrup, the Grade A Fancy, is produced early in the season, and the darker, less-expensive grades come toward the end. This year, many producers started out producing medium, and then had a burst of Grade A Fancy at the end.

“This year, on April 14th I was making fancy,” Mr. Crocker said. “Tell me something isn’t wrong.”

But the weird weather actually led, at least for Sidelands, to one of the longest and most productive seasons on record. Mr. Crocker’s total crop, produced through April 20, was 6,100 gallons, just 120 gallons below his best year ever.

“You hear the yield is low,” Mr. Crocker said. “I’ve turned it into a good year with technological innovation.”