Archives for posts with tag: geographical information systems (GIS)

This past Christmas, we sent bottles of Crown Maple Syrup to some of our friends and family.  Rachel had read about the producer, located only an hour north of us, in a food magazine and we thought the syrup would make a nice gift from a Hudson Valley source.

We didn’t get any for ourselves, though, figuring that a visit to the farm would make a fun field trip when the weather turned warmer.  Well, the weather is still cold—it feels more like winter than spring—but the sap has started its annual run.  We looked up the location, programmed it into the GPS/GIS and set off into the woods.

The home of Crown Maple Syrup is Madava Farms in Dover Plains, New York.  After driving north on the Taconic State Parkway, exiting onto a county road and then turning off onto a one-lane dirt road (soft from recent rains), we were expecting to arrive at a small, rustic farm like the one we visited in Vermont two years ago.  However, when we reached Madava Farms’ front gate—with its shiny stainless steel and geometrical design—we started to get the idea that something else was in store.

Instead of a centuries-old farmhouse, we found (at the end of a newly-paved driveway) a large, gleaming retail and production facility that includes a shop, restaurant and tasting room (in addition to the machinery necessary for distilling maple syrup) housed in an attractively-styled wood-framed structure (maple, naturally) reminiscent of an Adirondack hunting lodge.  It also made me think of some of the glitzier wineries in the Napa Valley.

The property is only a year old and was built by a wealthy energy investor.  That the founder is a graduate of the Harvard Business School is readily apparent.  The syrup is well-branded, there are high-end foods and related products (e.g., cookbooks) available for sale, and a variety of activities on-site (tasting, tours, dining, hiking).  Clearly, the business plan is to create a maple-syrup-based experience and not just to sell product.  It is also clear that they are succeeding.

Part of me recoiled from what initially felt like heavy-handed marketing.  But after walking around and observing the operation and its staff, I quickly came to appreciate its quality.  First and foremost, the syrup is very good.  We tasted their dark and medium amber products and both were smooth and clean-tasting.  Further, the syrup is attractively packaged in clear glass bottles that might remind some people of single malt scotch.

Although there was a high risk of pretentiousness on the part of the staff, we did not observe any (even if there is some unrestrained pride; no sin there).  The woman pouring samples in the tasting room was friendly, solicited and answered questions enthusiastically and was very knowledgeable about the production process.

And I have to admit that I am a sucker for architecturally-exposed industrial equipment.  The facility includes holding vats, a UV sanitizer, a reverse-osmosis water extractor, three-stage evaporator and the bottling line, all constructed from stainless steel, connected by precisely arranged and carefully labeled PVC piping and accessed by grated catwalks and viewing platforms.

And that’s just inside the main building.  Outside, the maple trees—which produce the sap from which the syrup is made—are interconnected by a network of small-diameter tubes which feed into larger distribution lines which in turn deliver the sap to distributed collection houses and, finally, into the holding tanks.  The tubes appear to levitate horizontally about four feet above the ground (on closer inspection, I found that they are supported by thin steel wires under high tension, strung between stout trees to carry the loads with very little sag) and are under vacuum pressure to keep the sap running (even when the weather is not conducive) and protect against leaks.

Before leaving, we bought a Maple Stick (puff pastry crisped in the oven with well-caramelized maple syrup) and started to plan a return visit.  Based on the length of the line, we weren’t the only ones enjoying the maple experience.


We’ve been starting to think about this year’s garden which is the first step towards actually doing something about it.

When planning at this early stage, the milestone that comes up most often is the average date of last frost.  Seed choice, time of sowing, period of hardening off, and date to transplant all work backwards (or forwards) from this important seasonal transition.

So, when is it?

In the old days, we would ask an old-timer or consult an almanac.  I don’t know anyone around here who falls into the former category but there are a variety of almanac websites (and, presumably, one can still buy a print version), most of which provide a list of cities and dates.  Looking at the Farmers’ Almanac, for instance, I found a map of the US and after clicking on New York, a short list of cities popped up.  The nearest to us is Albany for which the average last spring frost is May 2.

That was very simple and convenient but Albany is significantly farther north than we are.  Also, the notes indicate that there is a 50 percent chance that frost will occur on a later date, which sounds risky.  With further research, I thought I might be able to determine whether the risk of frost—with a higher confidence level—might be expected to end earlier.

Other websites attempted to refine their estimate by combining information from several nearby cities, based on our zip code.  For example, Moon Garden Calendar presented data for Poughkeepsie (to the north of us) and Yorktown Heights (to the south).  For a 10 percent probability of exceedance (the site allows a choice), the dates range between May 14 and April 29; a linear interpolation would give us May 7.  At Dave’s Garden, three cities were presented (Mohonk Lake and Middletown, both across the river from us, and Poughkeepsie) and their information was averaged for me.  The “almost guaranteed” date after which frost will not occur is May 4.

These dates still seemed late to me so I went looking for other sources.  I next tried the Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE), which provides a map on which rough contours have been plotted.  Based on this map—which is extremely low in its resolution—we are on the border between a last spring frost in the range of April 30 to May 10 and April 20 to 30, with proximity to the Hudson River clearly accounting for the latter zone.  We are in a transitional area with a microclimate that depends not just on the river but elevation as well.  Apparently, I needed a more detailed map.

A little web searching led me to PlantMaps.  This site is a great example of a geographical information system (GIS), where a lot of available information is linked to a physical location.  In this case, after entering my zip code, I was presented with a zoomed-in interactive map of New York hardiness zones (see July 28, 2011), along with a list of other available maps, among them a Last Frost Date map.  I clicked on this link, and was directed to another color-coded contour map.

This one appeared to be in greater detail than the CCE version—after all, it is powered by Google Maps—but the problem with it is that because of all of the detail (roads, terrain, satellite imagery, etc.), the contour colors are difficult to match with the legend.  As best as I can tell, we are located somewhere between a last frost date of May 1 to 10 and April 21 to 30.  This is essentially the same result as before but with higher resolution.

Which should not be a surprise.  The source cited by all of these websites is the National Climatic Data Center, a part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  They maintain data for a long list of locations in each state, compile and average them, and maintain contour maps that present the information visually (the raw data is also available in text form).  Their map (which is low resolution, just like CCE’s) puts us squarely in the May 1 to 15 zone of last spring frost; the nearest city listed in their database is West Point, with a last spring frost date of May 3.  The Farmers’ Almanac had it right after all.

Based on all of this, we are approximately 14 weeks before the last frost.  Therefore, we’re already behind!  Of course, I knew that before I even started this exercise.