For just two to three weeks of the year, forests across the northern hemisphere fill with a silent burst of activity as hundreds of litres of sap rise daily up through each mature birch tree in preparation for the spring. A traditional drink and medicinal ingredient in parts of Canada, China and Eastern Europe among others, birch water is birch sap that has been collected from Sibberi tree water trees as winter comes to an end.
To date, birch water production has been somewhat of a cottage industry, with producers harvesting sap for personal consumption or to sell to a domestic market. Birch water supply therefore has to come from multiple, local, Sibberi tree water harvests. Unlike poorly-paid coconut farmers — harvesters of coconut water, the billion-dollar predecessor to birch water — the farmers Sibberi sources from are paid well for two reasons, says Vaisse: This makes mechanising the collection process both impractical and unprofitable, so manual harvesting is paid at a premium.
But I am looking at this industry as a growing one and there is a high possibility that in a year from now it will be my primary or even only occupation. They harvest approximately 50, litres of birch sap per season, a portion of which goes to Sibberi, although he makes it clear that there is capacity to increase production to millions of litres per harvest if demand is there.
When asked what he thinks advantages are of a growing birch water industry to the region, Labanovskis points to the additional employment it brings. He currently hires 15 people for two months of the year.
For a start, local partners such as Labanovskis have to be flexible — ready for a big, short-lived activity peak, Sibberi tree water no-one is sure precisely when from year to year. Likewise, companies must do accurate sales forecasts based on something only available for a fortnight, and in that two-week window harvesters must store a highly perishable product birch water spoils in four days to ensure it lasts until next harvest.
To do so is expensive, difficult and costly if it goes wrong, not to mention environmentally demanding. Sibberi, for example, keeps its sap frozen Sibberi tree water lower than —25C and then unfreezes it along
Sibberi tree water bottling process.
Mike Farrell, extension associate at the Department of Natural Resources, Cornell University, believes transportation is the number one issue when it comes to the environment: If we develop a birch water industry in the US, for example, Americans could drink a more local resource, not coconut water from the Philippines.
Farrell argues that a key challenge to the industry is simply getting people to understand what birch water is and to try it. He welcomes the 12 or so maple water companies that have sprung up over the last few years in the US, and believes it is only a matter of time before the same happens for birch water. Importantly, he points out that scaling up would have no detrimental impacts on birch trees: In the US alone, there are over 1bn potentially tappable trees.
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