Friday, June 30, 2017

Birch sap cooperative boosts OneTree's work

When Jan Dawe sought extra help this spring collecting birch sap for OneTree Alaska’s research, the response surpassed her expectations.

Sugar master Shaun Johnson filters the syrup that he has been
 processing in OneTree's facility.
Dawe said more than 20 people showed up at the first birch sap cooperative meeting OneTree organized, and people just kept calling and stopping by to check out the taps and buckets they needed.  Altogether, 43 households and school groups collected sap for the co-op.

Individuals who delivered sap to the OneTree facility in the old Lola Tilly Commons kitchen will receive a share of birch syrup in July based on the amount of sap they contributed.

OneTree's buckets hang from trees at Valene
and Rod Ebersole's home.
And they delivered. Beginning in mid-April, 3.5- and 5-gallon white buckets arrived daily during 30-day season when clear sap flowed in Interior birch trees. Some collectors delivered as many as 60-80 gallons a day. They tapped trees as far south as Salcha and in all areas around Fairbanks.

Altogether, volunteers collected 3,300 gallons of birch sap. That, combined with OneTree’s collection of 2,000 gallons, added up to 5,300 gallons — one sweet haul.

Dawe and her staff have been exploring processing techniques for small-scale birch sap production.  They are investigating different types of evaporators and methods to see how they affect the efficiency and quality of syrup production. Dawe, a botanist by training, is a research assistant professor of natural resource education and community engagement. She describes the birch sap work as a demonstration research project, and the OneTree facility an “incubator” to encourage entrepreneurs interested in the business.  

At least seven producers sold birch syrup in Alaska in the 1990s, she said.  Only one larger business near Talkeetna, Kahiltna Birchworks, still exists, along with a new small company in Fairbanks called Sample Alaska, LLC

Dawe said the co-op’s birch tappers included students, retirees, families and others. Some were curious about tapping trees and others want to sell products, such as candies and granola, made with the syrup. A few are considering whether to start their own business.

Shaun Johnson uses a digital refractometer to
 measure the sugar content of the syrup.
Valene and Rod Ebersole tapped 60 birch trees on their farm off Steele Creek Road and on their best day delivered 80 gallons of sap to the co-op. They averaged around 60 gallons over a 10-day period. Valene said the couple planted 1,000 peonies last year and were looking for other possibilities for their farm when they heard about birch syrup processing at the Sustainable Agriculture Conference in Fairbanks this spring.

She said, “We’ve got birch trees. Why don’t we try this?”

She said it went pretty well, although it was a lot of labor carrying around the buckets. They may try tubing next year and collect sap for the co-op again. After they see how things go next year, they will consider whether to start making birch syrup as a business.

Mary Calmes and her husband, Tim Quintal, learned about the co-op from a neighbor and decided to give birch tapping a try. After getting the equipment and instructions from OneTree, they tapped six birch trees on their property off Smallwood Trail.

Calmes said they collected about three gallons of birch sap daily, kept a half-gallon for themselves to drink and delivered the rest. Calmes said the birch water tastes a lot like water but has a hint of sweetness to it and contains a variety of minerals.  They plan to tap again next year, she said, because as retirees they have the time to do it.

“It was a lot of fun,” said Calmes.

Dawe has been working with a New York fabricator who sells small-scale evaporators and reverse osmosis machines for sap product operations. Steve Caccamo of Next Generation Maple Products came to Alaska this spring to install equipment in the OneTree facility and to participate with Dawe in birch sap processing workshops. The smaller, hobby-size equipment he sells makes it more affordable for small producers to get in the business, according to Dawe.

Birch sap is sold in many areas of the world as birch water, a tonic with a slightly sweet taste, and some countries have traditionally held birch sap festivals. Dawe said birch sap has gained attention lately because of what people believe are its healthful properties.

Concentrated birch sap awaits processing.
Individuals who have tasted birch syrup previously may think of a dark molasses-tasting syrup.  The darker syrup is developed with longer processing times and late season sap. Dawe and crew have been experimenting with quicker processing methods that produce a lighter-colored syrup with more subtle flavors reminiscent of honey with a slightly fruity flavor.

In OneTree’s facility on a recent afternoon, the program’s sugar master, Shaun Johnson, explained how the process works.  Sap is run through a filter and into a 150-gallon tank. From there, it runs through a reverse osmosis machine to concentrate the syrup and eliminate about 85 percent of the water. The concentrated sap is frozen until it can be further processed in a steam evaporator or in a heated flat metal pan.

As the water evaporates, he uses a digital refractometer to check the sugar level. As it concentrates, the syrup darkens. They use a variety of evaporators, but he says, “The faster the evaporator, the lighter the syrup.”

It takes, on average, 100 gallons of birch sap for 1 gallon of syrup. Maple sap is sweeter at about  40:1. First run birch sap collected during the first few days of sap season is the best because it contains some sucrose, said Dawe. In fact, OneTree’s early-season birch syrup won first place for taste this year in the second-annual Global Birch Syrups Challenge in Leningrad, which included entries from Russia, Alaska and Canada.

In addition to research and outreach, Dawe and her staff are experimenting with selling birch syrup-based products to help support the OneTree program. They are selling straws that contain birch syrup for $1 each and are also developing birch caramels and birch fudge. Dawe said that at least two university programs in Vermont and New York also help support their programs by selling birch products.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Georgeson to host birthday bash for its namesake

The Georgeson Botanical Garden will celebrate the 166th birthday of its namesake with a birthday bash from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. June 25 at the garden.

The Georgeson Botanical Garden in full summer bloom.
Activities will include a craft fair, raffle, educational stations on beekeeping, peonies and herbs, face painting for kids, food for purchase, a birthday cake and, of course, beautiful flowers to view. The Dry Cabin String Band will provide music at 1 p.m. and garden manager Katie DiCristina will announce a “birthday gift” pledge drive at 2 p.m. A garden sculpture of the herb anise hyssop will also be dedicated to longtime volunteer and herb expert Barbara Fay.

Charles C. Georgeson was a plant breeder and agronomist who came to Alaska as the special agent in charge of the U.S. experiment stations in Alaska. He helped establish a series of stations, including the Fairbanks Experiment Farm in 1906, and he stayed to conduct research on livestock, grain and fruit. Georgeson was an enthusiastic supporter of agriculture in Alaska.

This sculpture of the herb anise hyssop will be dedicated
to herb expert Barbara Fay during the birthday bash.
The garden is located at 117 W. Tanana Drive, about a mile west of the main University of Alaska Fairbanks campus. The Georgeson Botanical Garden Society and the School of Natural Resources and Extension are sponsoring the event. For more information, contact Mathew Carrick at 907-841-4907 or

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Volunteers improve look of Matanuska Farm

Mat-Su Health Foundation staff and Matanuska Experiment Farm Director
Susanna Pearlstein, standing to the left of the sign, planted flower beds
on United Way's Day of Caring.

Thanks to a group of caring people, the entrance signs at the Matanuska Experiment Farm and Extension Center have a new look.
Elizabeth Ripley removes sod during the Day of
 Caring event at the farm.

Susanna Pearlstein, director of the Matanuska Experiment Farm, was looking for volunteers to help out at the farm and contacted United Way. She ended up submitting an application for Day of Caring, a United Way event that provides an opportunity for organizations and volunteers to work together to meet the needs of their community. 

Day of Caring took place on May 17, and the farm was fortunate enough to get an enthusiastic group from the Mat-Su Health Foundation who went right to work. The crew of 10 pulled out sod, laid weed prevention cloth, added soil and planted low-maintenance perennials, such as delphiniums, St. John’s wort, lilies, bleeding heart and poppies.

Mat-Su Health Foundation is no stranger to the farm and has provided grants in the past. Throughout the day, the volunteers and the farm staff shared information about each other while working toward a common goal — to add character to the farm and make it more inviting to the public.

Theresa Isaac waters flowers at the end of planting day
on May 31.
Pearlstein hopes to increase community involvement at the farm and create a permanent volunteer base. A Friends of the Farm group is being formed to assist with volunteer organizing and fundraising in the hopes of holding more events to beautify the farm. One such annual event is the farm’s Planting Day, when Extension’s Community Garden and Demonstration Garden members come plant their beds. The farm provides lunch for this fun event, which took place on May 31 this year.

For Pearlstein, beautifying the entrance is just the beginning. “The flowers are currently small, but just like activities at the farm they will continue to grow!”