A drop of fresh sap falls from a tap in a maple tree.
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Steve Chiotakis: Last year, maple syrup producers in the U.S. turned out more than two million gallons of the sticky stuff. Demand for syrup continues to grow, but there are only so many mature maple trees to tap. So one researcher developed a better way to get it. Ross Sneyd has more from Vermont Public Radio.
Ross Sneyd: Tim Perkins watches as a factory production line turns out what looks like a series of toy rockets. A plant biologist, Perkins designed the contraption at the University of Vermont. It's not a play-thing, but it could bring a whole lot of joy to maple-syrup makers. His creation is a nylon spout about two-inches long that fits onto the end of a traditional maple syrup tap.
TIM PERKINS: With a valve in here, sap can't move backwards, keeps the tap hole clean and allows the sap to run longer in the springtime.
Maple sap only runs when temperatures drop below freezing at night and then warm above freezing during the day -- a season of about four to six weeks in spring. Perkins' spouts helps keep the sap flowing during that period because they prevent tap openings from scabbing over. In field tests, the new devices allowed syrup makers to roughly double production.
Perkins is working with a company called Leader Evaporator Works in Swanton, Vt., to sell the spouts. Company Vice President Bruce Gillilan says he had orders for 3 million spouts before the factory even started churning them out.
BRUCE GILLIGAN: It could be one of the biggest things that's happened with the maple industry.
Gillilan expects orders to reach 20 million by next season.
Production of maple syrup has grown by about 50 percent over the past few years as consumers in Japan and Europe develop a sweet-tooth for it. At the same time, many food producers are starting to use it as an alternative to sugar.
Catherine Stevens directs marketing for a group of syrup producers in Vermont.
Catherine Stevens: It is now being viewed as an all-natural sweetener to use in recipes that everyone is cooking with.
Prices are now about $10 a gallon higher than they were two years ago.
Damian Branon crosses a cow pasture to get to his maple forest in Fairfield, Vt. He is one of thousands of syrup producers in New England.
Damian Branon: I think we can produce a lot of it. I think if they market it right, we can't produce enough to supply the markets.
He'll sure try, though. He tested the new spouts on a quarter of his 6,000 taps last spring. Next season, he'll put the new spouts to work on all of his trees.
In Colchester, Vt., I'm Ross Sneyd for Marketplace.