College researchers help Northern Ontario maple syrup producers tap into science to solve sticky production issue

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Buddy is no friend to Northern Ontario maple syrup producers. In fact, the unpleasant flavour — characterized by its burnt Tootsie Roll taste and smell — is an uninvited annual guest that generally occurs toward the end of the sap harvest season and when left undetected, results in unsaleable maple syrup and significant economic loss for its small business producers. Yet, until now, it has been a mystery to producers as to why the off-flavour shows up in their crops.

“Normally, I stop boiling before we get to that stage,” said maple syrup producer George Willoughby, a retired aircraft maintenance engineer who operates Marg & George Willoughby Maple Products on St. Joseph Island.  “Once it starts to darken up to the point where I think it’s not going to have good flavor, I quit,” he said.

Now, thanks to research being done at Fanshawe College through an internship program sponsored by Mitacs — a not-for-profit organization that fosters growth and innovation in Canada — maple syrup producers like Willoughby may one day soon be able to use a simple universal field test that works like a pregnancy test, indicating the presence of buddy by looking for a specific chemical compound, just as a pregnancy test indicates the presence of elevated hormones.

Like many producers, Willoughby has traditionally relied on nature – the arrival of buds in the trees and warmer daytime temperatures – to signal that the end of the season is near and buddy could show up. Guessing wrong is a significant problem. This past season, for example, he had to abandon his last boil, losing 50 to 55 litres of syrup and just under $1,000 in income.

“I’ve never had that experience before and it was probably due to buddy sap,” said Willoughby, who has been making maple syrup since 1967 and currently runs a wood-fired, Vermont-style operation on the island. “There are definite indicators as you go along in the season that the end is near, but this time I was taken by surprise,” he explained.

To ensure success in advance of next year’s harvest season, OMSPA members have begun tackling the buddy problem with science, partnering with researchers at Agriculture Canada and Fanshawe College with the support of Mitacs. The group of producers contributed to the $7,500 cost to secure a research intern, and that amount was matched by Mitacs.

 

Groundbreaking research

Since May, Mitacs researcher Eloy Jose Torres Garcia, a Colombian microbiologist and biotechnology undergraduate student at Fanshawe, has been working with the research team to pinpoint the buddy phenomenon and identify a biomarker to serve as the basis for developing an early warning field test. After analyzing hundreds of samples sent in by OMSPA producers, his groundbreaking research is showing the actual chemistry that occurs in the sugar maple trees themselves.

“We’ve established that the buddy off-flavour is the product of a nitrogen compound found in the tree and now we’re working to identify exactly which one,” said Garcia, who is now working to develop an easy-to-use field test to detect buddy that could work in a similar fashion to a pregnancy test. “If we can’t produce the pure buddy molecule, we can at least isolate the one that indicates the problem is coming.”

According to Mitacs Vice-President of Business Development Jesse Vincent-Herscovici, the Mitacs internship program — supported by federal and provincial government funding — is aimed at helping businesses succeed, with the majority of its partners small- to medium-sized enterprises.

“Many small businesses across Canada have unlocked the equation to scaling up their R&D efforts by using Mitacs,” said Vincent-Herscovici, noting that Mitacs business development professionals are trained to understand industry challenges and match a company’s needs to research expertise within universities and colleges across Canada.

“We help companies create an innovation roadmap and then help them find the right research counterparts to drive development,” he added. “The day-to-day transfer of knowledge between our interns and the businesses they support is the power behind the success of our internship program.”

The Mitacs internship program also benefits students, who overwhelmingly report improved academic experience and skills development, as well as increased employability beyond graduation, as a result of their internship experience. More than 80 per cent of Mitacs partner companies are small- and medium-sized business, and a recent study showed that more than 25 per cent of former interns progress to career employment in R&D roles.

For small producers like Willoughby, the idea of using a simple test to definitively know that buddy has arrived is game-changing. “The more we know, the better decisions we can make,” he said, adding that he fully supports the ongoing research. “Over the years, research has introduced new methods, helping to increase production. This project is another step in the right direction.”

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