Casaubon's Book

The End of Maple?

We’re very tiny maple producers, and only on a home scale. I boil the syrup down on the back of our woodstove, and collect the syrup from old plastic buckets. Our operation is stone-age compared to our more serious neighbors. We don’t have much of a sugar bush – most of our land was open 30 years ago, and we have only a moderate number of maple trees and many of those too small to tap. In twenty years, it should be respectable, though, as maples replace many of the other first growth trees. If, of course, it isn’t too warm for them.

This year we tapped for only two weeks – the warm winter and high temps in March meant that the sap flow was early and incredibly brief. For us, this means less home-grown syrup for pancakes. For my region, it was a disaster. Only Vermont produces more maple syrup than New York. For most of the farmers in my region, maple syrup is a much-needed early spring income stream after a long winter.

My sister and niece were visiting during the first of New York’s “Maple Weekends” and our original plans included a visit to a friend’s farm, a pancake lunch and a tour of their maple operation. Instead, it was 80 degrees and we took my niece to a local playground. I knew my friends were long since done syruping, and honestly, no one wanted to sit inside. I’m not the only one who made that choice – the state’s Maple Weekend Tourism saw a big drop off – tough on a lot of local farmers who had a horrible fall due to flooding, and now a tough winter and early spring on what has been a reliable crop.

It is particularly tough on those who tap the old-fashioned way. As the Washington Post reports, modern vacuum systems can still extract a lot more sap – but at a 10 grand plus cost, it is prohibitive for most small farmers.

Schultz’s family did better than most Wisconsin producers, however, because half of his trees are tapped with a vacuum system. Producers tap trees and insert tubes hooked to a vacuum, which draws the sap out. The systems are effective but expensive, costing about $10,000 on the low end. Suppliers say they’re only cost-efficient for farms with at least 500 trees in a small area. In Wisconsin, the nation’s No. 4 maple syrup maker, most producers are hobbyists who still rely on gravity to pull sap from trees with taps that drain into a bag or bucket.

In Vermont, by far the nation’s leading maple-syrup producer, about three-fourths of farms use vacuum systems, said Timothy Perkins, the director of the University of Vermont Proctor Maple Research Center. He estimated they will make about 60 percent of the syrup they produced last year, while those without vacuums might make 25 percent.

Vermont farms are “doing this for a living,” Perkins said. “They have to make syrup, and the only way you can be sure you’re going to make a decent amount of syrup is to use the newest technology.”

A vacuum system helped Dwayne Hill get 950 gallons of syrup from his 4,500 trees in upstate New York. Typically, he gets 1,500 to 1,800 gallons from his farm in Harpersfield. Overall, Hill, the president of the New York Maple Producers Association, thought the state would produce 60 to 70 percent of the 312,000 gallons it made last year.

The difficulty, of course, is that if there are too many years where production is at 50, 60%, fewer farms will be able to add vacuum systems because the return won’t be great enough. Then, the increasing inequity between small farmers and larger ones starts playing its own havoc on the system. Maple has been one place where very small producers can often do fairly well – that may come to an end.

2011 was a record year for syrup production nationally – no one thinks this is all going to go one direction. The overall pattern is clear, though – Vermont maple producers on average sugar a full month ahead of the starting point 100 years ago. In my region those on south-facing slopes sometimes start as early as January. And it is pretty clear that sap runs will get shorter over time.

This is especially a big deal in New York and the New England States. Unlike much of the US, we are a small farm region. The average New York State farm is under 200 acres, and the profit margins are tight. Maple syruping makes small farming viable in states like mine. It provide insulation to farms producing New York’s major crops – apples, vegetables, milk and cheese. It keeps farms afloat. It is also one of two really local sources of sweetener that my region can provide for itself – and the other, honey, is under stress as well. Maple syrup has been a huge boon for my region – but not, perhaps forever.

Sharon

Comments

  1. #1 Brad K.
    April 2, 2012

    Sharon,

    Not to worry. I am sure Monsanto and the USDA are working on a plan to convert high fructose corn sweetener into ersatz maple syrup, financed by a tariff on imported maple syrup, and corn, and a tax on corn sweetener, organic compost, and restricting use of terms like “GMO”, “organic”, “maple”, and “syrup” for Monsanto use only.

    I am sure patented “round up ready” strain of maple trees is in the works, and market protections to assure that every tapped maple tree owes license fees to Monsanto, and that every producer will have to handle every maple product as if the tree and products were Monsanto-patented.

    It might be interesting to watch, to see if the maple areas get more federal money for the impact on maple syrup tourism, or the impact on maple syrup production. Politically it seems a no-brainer. Tourists vote; empty maple syrup shelves just get customers mad at the grocer, and not for months after the shortfall.

    Seriously, when you mention the vacuum tapping, I wonder — how does vacuum tapping affect the tree health and life span? I mean, nothing comes for free. Leave the lights on for chickens and they lay all winter — but don’t live as long a life. How can drawing more sap in spring not affect growth, health, and/or life span of the tree? Is this another process like agribusiness, mining or fracking, that produce lots of dollars and a certain amount of devastation in their wake?

  2. #2 Ros
    April 2, 2012

    It’s the same in Quebec – my father-in-law produces maple syrup, and he’s lucky to have hit 60% of the usual production. Some of the neighboring sugar bushes have hit 20-40%, which is just a hard, hard hit, especially for a field that doesn’t usually have that much of a profit margin, considering the work that goes into it.

    Another thing that impacts them greatly is the grade of the syrup that can be extracted – when the sap is running more slowly, or it’s hot outside, the sugars start changing and you get a much darker syrup, which is sold for much less, so the financial impact is greater than simply the volume of production…

  3. #3 Nicole
    April 2, 2012

    I think maple syrup will become mostly a regional specialty food again, even without the likely changes in climate. Too few people can afford the prices that the real thing commands. Many young Americans have never tasted actual maple syrup, instead they know what maple-flavored corn syrup tastes like. They are going to grow up without a sense of value for the real thing.

    I was recently invited to join a bulk coop purchase of maple syrup… at $80/gallon. I’m not on a tight budget and I really like maple syrup, but didn’t even consider it for a second at that price. And the pricing is probably higher now given the short season.

  4. #4 NJ
    April 2, 2012

    Oh. Maple syrup.

    Whew!

    For a minute there I thought I was going to have go learn Mathematica…

  5. #5 climatehawk1
    April 2, 2012
  6. #6 Greenpa
    April 9, 2012

    too crazy here to check in much. I’ve made maple syrup here in Minnesota for decades; always watch the phenology.

    As far as I can tell- we got ZERO days of sap flow this year; and I was looking. Specifically monitoring both Acer saccarum and Acer negundo; and never saw ONE drop.

    Tonight- worrying about losing the apple blossoms; hard freeze predicted, most of 120 trees in early full bloom…

  7. #7 İskur
    April 12, 2012

    ey be maple dermişken aklımazı gelmeyen kalmıyor bendeniz rebekah bu kurslar hayatımız kurslarda geçti geçmeyede devam edecek gibi. şimdide işkur mesleki kurslarına başlayıdk bakılım bu bilgeler bize yardımları dokunacakmı. bence artıl güzel bilgiler veren siteleri bulmak kolay olmuyor bloğunuzu takdirle takip ediyoru rss işte bu.

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