BURLINGTON, Vt. — Vermont's century-old technology for producing maple syrup is helping transform the sugar cane industry in Honduras and has the potential to spread to southern Mexico and other parts of Latin America.
The standard maple boiler evaporator designs, with modifications to boil sugar cane juice, are helping reduce pollution and cut production costs while increasing profits for the farmers.
It has taken several years of trial and error to refine the system, but the technology is spreading -- albeit slowly -- throughout the central Honduran region of Comayagua.
"The problem is the producers aren't looking to change," said Goldon Aguilar, president of the Caprocatal cooperative in Taulabe. "Changing the mind of a 70-year-old farmer is hard."
Aguilar helped develop the new technology with Dan Baker, international program coordinator at the University of Vermont's Department of Community Development and Applied Economics. They met five years ago when Baker was in Honduras working on a coffee project.
Members of the 140-member cooperative squeeze the juice from sugar stalks, then boil the liquid into solid brown chunks, called "panela." It is used as a sweetener in candy and similar products throughout Honduras.
Under the existing system, farmers use flat-bottom pans placed under shelters that are frequently covered with thatch, a tropical sugarbush. Firewood to boil the juice is too expensive so most farmers burn used tires, about 6,000 a week for each site.
The smoke from the tire fires belches dangerous chemicals into the air and frequently makes people sick. Although the tires are free to the farmers, transporting them to their farms is expensive, Aguilar said.
The squeezed sugar cane stalks, akin to cornstalks but a lot tougher, are either burned at the end of the season or discarded into rivers and streams, clogging some.
The key to the change is the channeled bottom of a maple sap boiling pan, standard in the maple industry for at least a century. The design increases the amount of surface area exposed to the heat. And as Baker and Aguilar worked together, they discovered that dried sugar cane stocks could fuel the fires and produce organic waste that wouldn't harm the environment.
"We were able to boil harder and faster," Baker said.
But the product was flawed. It boiled too hard, mixing the scum that usually rose to the top back into the liquid, darkening the sugar and ruining the flavor.
"Sugar cane juice is different from maple sap," Aguilar said.
It almost sunk the project.
"There was a time when everybody lost interest in us," Baker said. "Everybody told us to wrap it up and go home."
But Baker and Aguilar kept at it, paying expenses out of their own pocket. Eventually, one farmer suggested modifying the boiling pan by shortening one of the channels. It kept the scum from circulating into the mix.
The problem was solved.
High-quality panela can now be produced cheaper and cleaner. A typical farm will produce about 1,000 pounds a week during the seven-week season. That could save a farmer about $275 over the season, a lot in an industry where a typical production worker makes about $5 a day.
Honduran farmers haven't flocked to the new technology though. As anyone who has worked in international development knows, technological change comes slowly.
"It's a process of development," Baker said. "I believe there is a need to work with the community for a long time."
And the struggle to make it work is helping convince the farmers who are reluctant to change and who might find the $500 cost of the new evaporator too expensive.
"At this point, when they see our program working, they see we are not people who give up," Baker said.
Taulabe's mayor has outlawed burning tires, forcing farmers to use the new system. Many farmers remain reluctant to switch; some continue to burn tires illegally. But the process is catching on, with help from Baker, who is running training workshops for 200 farmers.
"We have a steady stream of orders for the new evaporator, pretty amazing considering we haven't even completed our first training session yet," Baker said. "Farmers who attended Part 1 went home and immediately set about obtaining funds to buy the evaporators. Our small manufacturing facility is operating at its capacity to fulfill these orders."
Aguilar visited Vermont recently to work with university representatives who are helping manage several grants that will expand the technology.