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Man and Machine

When you get up to the tree, your instinct is to grab the trunk with the clam, but if you’re holding it, the saw will bind. You’ve got to cut the tree and then close the clam almost simultaneously. If you’re off, the tree can fall back and land on the machine.

Once the tree’s cut and you’ve got a hold of it, you need to move it to where you want to lay it. Remember in little league when they showed you how to balance the bat in your hand? (He demonstrates.) You need to find the balance point of the tree.

It takes a while to get the hang of it. It takes more brains than balls.

— Greg Haskins

We’re having some logging done this spring, which is not a phrase that an ecologically-sensitive person is supposed to utter. The ground in April is wet, of course, which can lead to ruts and unnecessary soil disturbance. The bark on the growing trees is getting loose, as the sap flows and the trees move into high-gear making leaves; this means that the trees left standing are more vulnerable to injury than they are in winter, when they’re dormant.

And yet technology, and the right logger, is allowing us to push back on this conventional wisdom.

 

The machine in this picture is an 80,000-pound feller buncher. (To put that weight in perspective, the cutting head – just the cutting head – weighs as much as my full-sized pickup.) And yet it’s tracked, so the weight is distributed better than a skidder with four big tires. And as it cuts, it lays down brush and poles where needed to further cushion the ground.

The operator, pictured above, is Greg Haskins, who works for Hunter Excavating in South Londonderry, Vermont. Picture him deftly moving the beast through the forest, reaching out with the boom to cut the marked trees; bear-hugging, balancing, lifting them, then moving them and setting them down in a way and in a place where they won’t disturb the standing trees. You can see from the picture below the work he did. No gashes on any of the crop trees. (This is destined to become part of a sugarbush, if you’re wondering why the crop trees are marginal-looking red maple.) No jagged crowns. Minimal soil disturbance.

People like me – it might be safe to say people like us – tend to distrust technology, especially big, loud, imposing technology. And to be fair, there are applications where you can watch a feller-buncher mow through a forest and get chills. But when they’re used thoughtfully, and wielded skillfully, it’s hard to be nostalgic for the old chainsaw and cable-skidder method, which was crude at best. As I watched Haskins work, I marveled at how fast, and efficient, and clean the work was.

Last Snow (We Hope)

I remember hearing a story once about a spring snow like the one we woke up to this morning. A farmer had planted a crop – trees, I think; little seedlings – and then a few days later snow covered the field. The farmer panicked, and ran from seedling to seedling with a broom, brushing the snow off. But there were thousands and he could only get to so many. A few weeks later, all the seedlings he’d rushed to save were dead. And the ones that he hadn’t gotten to had recovered, having weathered the cold temperatures beneath the blanket of snow.

Dispatch from the Sugarwoods, 3/24/20

As I write this, about 4 inches of fresh snow are glowing bluely in the predawn light.

The season continues for us. The mid-week freeze last week brought a nice color back to the syrup, and the flavor was as good as any we’d made all year. The warmth last Friday definitely took its toll – the sap flow has slowed. But it ran decent this past weekend; it even ran during Monday’s storm. “Sugar snow,” the old-timers called these March runs, when the thermometer hovers around 30°, and big wet snowflakes dapple and droop tree limbs, and defying all physics the sap flows anyway.

We’re at about ¾ of a crop, and it’s taken us 63 gallons of sap to make each gallon so far. As a comparison, last year was 51:1, which is closer to our long-term average. So things this year are significantly less sweet.

Why do trees vary in sugar content from year to year? There are so many variables that no one can say for sure. Two years ago our sugar content also averaged 63:1, and I decided then that it related to a drought in 2016, which produced a stress crop of seeds in 2017, which depleted the tree’s sugar reserves in the spring of 2018. Intuitively this kind of makes sense. You can test the starch reserves in a tree’s root system in the fall, and it’s documented that the reserves vary from year to year based on stress. (Testing of this sort is not standard practice in the industry – it’s mostly done in conjunction with an insect-related defoliating event, as it can give a sugarmaker an idea of tree health before the season so they can make the decision to tap or not.) You can read some work here from Harvard forest where they looked into the relationship between seed years and syrup yields.

We had a heavy seed year last summer, too. So maybe the same thing’s at play again. But I have a new theory this year I’m toying with, and it involves nighttime low temperatures. What we’re noticing, and it’s backed up by another producer I know with a high-vacuum system, is that when you spot check the sugar content of the sap after a hard freeze, it spikes up to 2-plus percent, where it should be. But then as days go by without a freeze, the sap gets progressively less sweet. If we look at the last two weeks, which were the heart of this season, we had a hard freeze (below 25°) on the 8th, followed by 6 nights where it either didn’t freeze or just touched freezing. If froze hard on the nights of the 15th and 16th, recharging the trees, but then it didn’t freeze hard again until the 22nd. So only three out of fourteen nights. When averaged, the low temperatures in that two-week window came out to 30.4°. Last year had consistently lower low temps. Nine of out fourteen nights in the 2-week heart of the season dropped below 25°, and the overall average was 26.7°.

So now I’m wondering if these middling low temps might be a contributing factor to the low sugar content as well. I talked with my friend Mark Isselhardt, the UVM extension maple specialist and a respected maple scientist, and asked his thoughts. He was buying the idea that the lack of hard freezes had an effect. He was skeptical of the seed theory.