Stockton Plans To Build Maple Syrup Industry With $500K Grant

By: Follow South Jersey Staff

Aaron Stoler, assistant professor of Environmental Science, and Ryan Hegarty ’21, the maple grant’s research assistant, install tubing in Stockton’s sugarbush. Photo credit: Stockton University

GALLOWAY, N.J. — The United States Department of Agriculture awarded Stockton University’s Maple Syrup project a grant for nearly $500,000 to build a maple syrup industry in South Jersey.

The funding from the three-year grant will be used to develop “production hubs” in South Jersey counties and Philadelphia, according to a press release from the university. Potential hub locations are now being researched. Each hub will receive equipment to efficiently collect sap and produce maple syrup, as well as expert consulting in setting up their operation. In exchange, hub owners agree to tap trees on their property and also receive syrup from interested local community members.

“Whatever trees the hubs tap on their property, they have to accept an equal number of trees offsite,” Aaron Stoler, an assistant professor of Environmental Science who is leading the grant team, said.. “It’s a bit like the apple cider model that exists in some areas: you have an apple tree on your property but no cider press. So you find a local cider press, give them the apples and a small fee, and they give you back some fresh, delicious cider. Except in this case, community members are giving maple sap and getting back syrup.”

During the sugaring season, each hub will host an open house to allow the community to “taste, experience and participate to help build that Vermont-esque style culture,” said Stoler.

“The second grant is about getting the industry started. This requires two things: people who are excited to produce syrup and a community that is excited to taste and buy the syrup. We need what Vermont has. If you drive to Vermont, you expect to see a sugar shack and you’re excited to taste some syrup. People visit sugar shacks in Vermont like people visit wineries around the Finger Lakes,” he said.

The grant’s engagement specialist, Jethro Heiko, will be working one-on-one with each hub to engage the community and expand outwards. Heiko already has a successful hub model in Philadelphia and hopes to replicate similar models across the region.

The new grant also incorporates an education component that will develop K-12 modules and general educational opportunities to keep the community involved. And in a couple of years, a lending library of evaporators will be created so that schools can borrow the equipment needed to make syrup with students.

A research component will look at sugarbush management. “In southern New Jersey, we are trying to figure out how to best manage forests for red maple growth,” said Stoler.

Last year, red maple trees were tapped on campus and in backyards throughout the region. The community connected with nature, spent time outside and made syrup when the world suddenly went into a lockdown. 

“The first grant was about building engagement and excitement and developing a sugarbush on campus to show people a Vermont-style sugarbush in southern New Jersey,” Stoler said.

Events brought people to Stockton’s maple forest and data was collected through soil and leaf litter samples from backyards to help researchers answer questions about the conditions needed for red maples to thrive.

The 90-some red maple trees that were tapped last year taught the team valuable lessons like the ideal time to tap, how to maximize the efficiency of equipment and how many people are needed to run a sugaring operation.

This year, a two-mile web of blue tubing weaves about 400 red maple trees into a network that feeds into a collection tank and quadruples the size of the sugarbush from last year.

Four hundred trees translate into the potential to harvest 4,000 gallons of sap that can be boiled down into 60-80 gallons of syrup. 

Stockton’s maple syrup won’t be available for purchase until 2023. Sales will go to sustain Stockton’s hub by funding repairs and employing students who will get hands-on experience in the new industry.

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