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.