Cornell Corner


  •  Joe Orefice checks over the evaporator inside the sugarhouse at Cornell’s Uihlein Maple Research Forest in Lake Placid, N.Y.

  •  Visitors to the Uihlein Maple Research Forest are encouraged to support its work by purchasing syrup on an honor system, if no one is present.

  •  Joe Orefice checks a demonstration that shows how 3/16-inch tubing creates a natural vacuum. He is the Cornell Uihlein Maple Research Forest’s new director.

Joe Orefice takes reins of Cornell’s research forest

He brings a diverse career background to the position

By PAUL POST | DEC. 12, 2017

Joe Orefice doesn’t have a closet big enough for all the different hats he wears.

That’s the favorite part of his job as new director of the Cornell Uihlein Maple Research Forest in Lake Placid, N.Y. 

“I like the education aspect, the actual hands-on production aspect, and I like conducting research that has a tangible outcome people can use to make things better,” he said. “I’m always doing something different. I could never just do research.”

Orefice, 32, brings a diverse career background to the position, which makes him well-suited for its many demands and responsibilities.

A native of Litchfield County, in northwestern Connecticut, he grew up on a small family farm, which tapped 100 maple trees and made syrup with a wood-fired, homemade evaporator. It was this kind of experience that inspired him to pursue forestry with undergraduate and master’s degrees from the University of Maine and Yale University, respectively, followed by a doctorate in agroforestry from the University of New Hampshire.

After starting out as a Connecticut state forester, he taught forestry at Paul Smith’s College, as an associate professor, before moving to Uihlein last March. Orefice credits Mike Farrell, his predecessor, for smoothing his transition by staying on board until early summer, after the busy maple sugaring season, which the site relies on heavily for its own financial sustainability. After 12 years at Uihlein, Farrell is now CEO of Adirondack Management, a new private-sector firm whose goal is acquiring and managing forestland to produce maple and birch sap and syrup.

“I really enjoyed teaching, but this was an opportunity for a new challenge,” Orefice said.

If that’s what he’s looking for, he came to the right place.

Uihlein’s long-term research legacy is breeding trees for sweeter maple content.

“The trees right around here are four percent, twice the norm, so you get twice the sap out of your forest,” Orefice said. “We’re not there yet to tell other people how to do this. We do sell some of the trees. What we’re trying to do is just see if we can breed it.”

But it’s an extremely slow process. Unlike annual crops, corn for example, some 40- to 60-year-old trees are just now starting to produce seeds. 

While staying committed to long-range work, Orefice has a full plate of more pressing goals to tackle. This winter, plans call for tests to study the benefits of 3/16-inch versus 5/16-inch tubing. Smaller diameter tubing creates a natural vacuum, which increases sap flow, but the goal is determine how this compares over the long term to larger size tubing.

Another effort will focus on tapping timing, a critical issue in the face of warmer winters due to climate change. “Suddenly, sap is flowing in January,” Orefice said. “We need to know, when can you tap?”

Uihlein is also keeping up with a whole new industry development -- birch production. “Birch syrup is like the Wild West,” Orefice said. “Anything we do with birch tapping is brand new including the timing of tapping, what is the sugar content, and what size tubing should you use? It’s just wide open.”

In his first six months on the job, Orefice was amazed to see how many people stopped by the research station for a tour or visit, sometime 15 to 20 per day, even in summer. “Some people are just looking for something to do while they’re up in the Adirondacks,” he said.

The research center is on Bear Cub Lane, a short distance from downtown Lake Placid, an international resort town where the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics were held. Public interaction is part of the station’s educational mission.

However, Orefice wants to encourage more self-guided visits as he and Keith Otto, a Paul Smith’s College graduate, are the station’s only full-time employees, and there’s simply little time for giving tours on busy work days.

The 200-acre forest, with 6,000 taps, was given to Cornell University by entrepreneur Henry Uihlein in the early 1900s as a way to promote maple production in northern New York. The research facility was built in the 1960s.

The site has a working sugarhouse with the latest production equipment, and a store where visitors can purchase syrup made on the premises.

In addition to all his other job duties, Orefice is also responsible for Uihlein’s fiscal affairs, which includes grant writing. “Syrup sales and research grants are what fund this facility, which has a roughly $150,000 budget,” he said. “So in a lot of ways we’re faced with the same challenges producers deal with.”

Last spring was kind of a trial by fire for Orefice as he joined Uihlein right during the busy sugaring season. Fortunately, Farrell was still there to show him the way. Next year, Orefice will be in charge of operations.

“I’m actually looking forward to it,” he said. “I know what I need to do now and I have great employees.”

In addition to Otto, Uihlein has an experienced seasonal worker as well.

If all these projects aren’t enough to keep Orefice busy, he’s also northern New York’s maple specialist for Cornell Cooperative Extension. In this capacity, he leads maple programs at various county Extension offices, presenting the research center’s latest findings, and helping producers keep abreast of industry trends. 

One of his greatest concerns, as an experienced forester, is the health of the region’s maple tree population. “We’ve seen a decline in sugar maples in the North Country,” Orefice said. “We need to know why. We need to know, can we do things to get our current trees to grow faster? If we’re going to regenerate our forest, how do we do it? That work is just forest health and productivity.”

Trees have been stressed on a number of fronts.

“There was an ice storm in 1998 that blew out a lot of their crowns. Many of them never recovered,” Orefice said. “There’s been acid rain, which depletes nutrient availability in the soil. Sugar maple is especially sensitive to that. Insect outbreaks are occurring and climate change means more droughts. All these things are hitting at once.”

Producers can do a lot of things to improve forest health, he said.

“Conservative tapping is important,” he said. “A lot of people overtap. Even people who aren’t commercial producers, they’ll put three buckets on one tree. It’s just not going to work well for them. They’ll see their long-term production drop if they’re not using conservative guidelines.”

People should also monitor their forest and take an inventory to determine if trees are healthy or not. “In areas where they aren’t healthy, do you have regeneration coming up? Do you have that next stage?” Orefice said.

This summer, northern New York had a major infestation of forest tent caterpillars. Right now, people should monitor their forest, or hire someone, to figure out how many egg masses are out there. If large numbers are present, spraying is advised.

“That’s something you can do because after two or three years of that outbreak your sugarbush may be suffering for the next 25 to 30 years,” Orefice said.

Finding solutions that solve people’s problems is the most rewarding aspect of his work. “The research that’s conducted here is applied,” Orefice said. “It balances field work and academic work. There needs to be sound, solid science. Results are going to make tangible change right now. We’re not shooting in the dark.”

Originally published in The Maple News in October 2017.