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Feb112011

Sweet time for Maine's syrup producers

Fresh from the Woods

Sweet time for Maine’s syrup producers

February 2011

By Joe Rankin

Mention maple syrup season and the image that leaps to mind for most people is straight out of a Norman Rockwell print: metal buckets, old Dobbin pulling the sleigh, a weathered sugar shack in the moonlight, and steam billowing off the old wood-fired evaporator.

These days, the picture is likely to include a spider web of polyethylene tubing, high-tech evaporators and sap storage tanks big enough to float a boat in.

In Maine late winter is syrup season. And maple syrup is big.

 Source: National Agricultural Statistics ServiceIt’s a hobby for many, a sideline for quite a few, a part-time job for some and full-time employment for a few.

Maine has traditionally been one of the top maple syrup producing states. In 2009 Maine’s syrup production boiled down to $13 million, or 14 percent of the U.S. total. Vermont was first at $32 million. Quebec . . . well, there‘s a reason Canada has a maple leaf on its flag.

Rodney Hall of Hall Farms Photo by Joe Rankin

“My dad and I made syrup on a barrel stove when I was in grammar school,” said Rodney Hall of Hall Farms in East Dixfield. “In 1984 we bought our first evaporator. We made one and a half gallons an hour and had 386 taps. This would be in the spring of 1985.”

This year Rodney, his brother Randy and father Richard will put in 7,200 taps over 80 acres or so. They hope to produce as much as 1,700 gallons of syrup, wholesaling some and selling much of the rest at the Fryeburg Fair.

The Halls still operate a dairy farm. They harvest trees on their woodlots. Sell hay. But the real push is syrup.

It’s a life Rodney Hall loves. “I guess because I don’t have a boss standing looking over my shoulder telling me what to do,” he said. He’s probably not the only one who feels that way.

Acer saccharum. The sugar maple.

An overachiever of a tree: provides great shade, fine lumber, BTU-packed firewood -- and syrup. While several trees produce sugary sap, maple is king. Boiling concentrates the sugars, which naturally run 1 to 2 percent, into a sweet elixir. It takes 40-plus gallons of sap to make something that puddles nicely on your pancakes

Native Americans made maple syrup long before settlement by Europeans. How they came to discover the tree’s sweet potential no one really knows. White settlers moved quickly to emulate them. And provided the first technological advance in syrup making: the iron kettle. For a long time maple syrup was produced on isolated farmsteads for mainly local use.

Making syrup Photo courtesy University of Maine Cooperative Extension

But times changed.

“At some point it became a luxury item, because of the work that went into it,” said Kathryn Hopkins, the maple specialist for the University of Maine’s Cooperative Extension Service. “It’s a luxury item, a gourmet item. Not a commodity item, and hasn’t been for a long time.”

It still takes a lot of work. Tubing has to be strung or buckets of sap emptied. Taps have to be put in, usually on snowshoes. Equipment has to be tended.

But it’s easier than it used to be.

“Changing technology and research has advanced the industry so it’s less work. You can get a higher quality product and it’s faster,” said Hopkins.

There are some 250 licensed syrup producers in the state. Smaller operations are concentrated in the south, large ones in the north. Somerset County produces 90 to 95 percent of Maine’s syrup, and is actually the largest producing county in the U.S.

Most of the large operations are bulk syrup producers, packaging it in drums and selling it to smaller producers or distributors for repackaging, said Eric Ellis, the president of the Maine Maple Producers Association and the manager of Maine Maple Products.

 Maine Maple Products is owned by Quebec’s Lariviere family, which puts some 80,000 taps in maples on leased lands in far northern Somerset County. The syrup is made on site in the north woods, then hauled to a packing and distribution center in Madison.

It is the state’s largest syrup distributor, but only about the fifth largest producer, said Ellis. The company hopes to make 20,000 gallons of syrup a year and will buy another 5,000 to 10,000 gallons from other producers to resell.

Jeremy Steeves of Strawberry Hill Farms classifies himself as a “medium-sized” producer, with some 30,000 taps -- 10,000 at his family’s farm in Skowhegan and the rest in northern Somerset County. He makes his living from maple.

“We make about 7,000 gallons a year. I’m probably mid-size, definitely. There aren’t too many 100,000-tap operations. Certainly in the scope of the maple industry in the U.S. I would be considered large. On the Canadian scale a medium. But I also pack everything I make,” he said.

Strawberry Hill sells most of its production wholesale. Steeves goes for the upscale specialty food market.

Assuming a quarter cup serving of syrup on your inch-high stack of flapjacks, 10,000 gallons would take care of a stack almost 10 miles high. If you really douse yours, of course, you throw the calculations way off.

By the way, two tablespoons of maple syrup has about 100 calories. But lots of minerals and other good stuff.

Anyway, today’s production numbers are only possible thanks to technology, which has changed the industry tremendously.

It started in the 1980s with plastic tubing collection systems. Over the last 10 or so years the pace of change has quickened.

These days there are efficient oil-fired and wood fired evaporators, vacuum systems that pull the sap through the tubing, reverse osmosis systems -- the same technology used in desalination systems -- that separate out much of the water, concentrating the sugars prior to boiling. There are plastic taps with disposable tips and taps with a valve that prevents sap from being sucked back into the tree when the vacuum system is shut off.  But all this doesn’t come cheap.

 Eric Ellis of Maine Maple Products, Inc. Photo by Joe Rankin

Hall estimates he has some $200,000 invested in equipment, including $60,000 in tubing. Heck, he pays $1,800 a year for plastic taps alone.

Hopkins, who works with existing and would-be producers, said it can cost upwards of $2,000 just to set up a small scale operation for 60 to 80 trees. For 800 trees it can be upwards of $10,000 or more.

“There’s the whole idea people have that hard work can be substituted for capital. While that can be true to some extent you still need some capital,” Hopkins said.

Her first piece of advice to would-be producers: have a market for the syrup. Second, figure how much you can afford to invest.

The cost hasn’t stopped people from getting into the business.

“I had someone shadow me all today that’s interested in doing it. One who shadowed me started a major sugarbush,” said Steeves. “There are a number of new sugar camps in the Farmington area, half a dozen new ones in just the last year. And there are a number of new camps in the Jackman area in the 10,000 to 20,000-tap size.”

Steeves said “with the newer technology you get higher yields and the price being up helps. But it’s not a get-rich-quick type of thing.”

When it comes down to it, syrup is still an agricultural product. As such it’s dependent on weather. And the weather lately has been, well, unpredictable.

Maples need warm, but not too warm, days and cold nights to prompt the sap to rise.

2008 was a poor crop year, 2009 a good year for syrup, 2010 a not so good year. U.S. maple syrup production last year was just shy of 2 million gallons, down 19 percent from the year before. Temperatures were just too warm and the season, consequently, short, an average of 23 days, compared to 28 the year before, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Maine’s production was 310,000 gallons, a steep drop from 395,000 gallons the year before, but still higher than the measly 240,000 gallons of 2008.

“One of the challenges is the erratic seasons. Last year the best runs were at the end of January and the first week of February. If you missed that because you always made syrup in March you missed the best part of the season,” said Hopkins, the maple specialist.

With climate change those erratic seasons are likely to continue. In fact, with warming global temperatures the maple might actually start to move north and Maine’s mix of hardwood trees gradually tend toward more hickories and oaks.

But for most syrup producers that’s a problem they’re not ready to worry about. There are more immediate concerns.

They include exotic pests like the Asian long-horned beetle; fewer work visas for Canadians who labor in the northern sugarbushes; and the faster pace of land sales in the north woods that puts sugarbush leases at risk.

Another worry: sheer competition for the trees. “There‘s a lot of pressure from woodcutting that didn‘t exist before,” said Steeves. “I’ve seen whole mountains cut over. Good, nice maple areas. And there are only a handful of landowners that are considering maple as a stable production.”

The Maine Maple Producers Association promotes its product through Maine Maple Sunday, this year on March 27, when sugarhouses across the state open their doors to the public. Thousands go to visit. This June the Association is also sponsoring its first Maple Mania, a three-day conference for producers from the U.S. and Canada to be held at the University of Maine at Farmington.

But maple producers say the state could do more to promote and help “brand” Maine’s maple industry: To get people to think “Maine” when they see the words maple syrup, not just “Vermont.” They also would like to see the University of Maine’s School of Forest Resources include syrup production in its curriculum.

Still, those involved in maple syrup production say the industry’s position right now is sweet.

A few years ago the Canadians, who produce the bulk of the world’s supply, put their surplus toward developing an export market on the Pacific Rim. The new market -- Korea, Japan, Taiwan, India all the way to Saudi Arabia, took off. That will help keep prices, and profit margins, up.

And higher prices -- $20 and up for a quart, $60 for a gallon in Maine -- haven’t apparently hurt sales. It appears that, for people who like maple syrup on their pancakes or their oatmeal, only the real deal will do, and they’re willing to pay for it.

“The industry is the best it’s ever been, at least in modern times,” said Hall.

Now, if the weather will only cooperate.

Fresh from the Woods is produced by Forests for Maine's Future, a collaboration of the University of Maine, Maine TREE Foundation, the Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine and the Maine Forest Service.