Vermont sugarmakers report a range of results

CN-MR-2-VermontSugar1by Bethany M. Dunbar

Vermont sugarmakers are reporting a range of results from the season this spring, with some saying they made half a crop, some saying three-fourths, and some saying production was average. Even so, because so many more people are sugaring and others who have always sugared have added more taps, Vermont’s maple production is steadily climbing.

“You virtually have eight times the syrup that was produced 10 years ago,” said Henry Marckres of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture.

“Last year we estimated four million taps.” This year, the estimate was double that number. Also, with more sugarmakers adding vacuum systems with tubing, production per tap can be doubled. Cold weather dragged out later than usual this spring, which meant the sugaring season started about a month late for many people.

“Fast and furious,” said Susan Randall of Barton as a way of describing her season. “Oh man, it came all at once, and when it ended, it ended.”

Randall tapped her trees on March 9 and did not gather any sap until April 2. Most of her operation is done the old-fashioned way, with buckets hanging on trees. One issue for the Randalls this year was the deep snow in the sugarbush. The Randalls, who run Golden Buckets farm, made about 130 gallons. They usually make about 200 gallons a year.

Mary Croft of the Vermont Maple Sugarmakers Association said she has heard mixed reports about production this year.

“Last year was really a record year,” she said, so an average year might seem disappointing in comparison.

Marckres said he has seen a trend of sugarbushes that were low lying or tapped later getting half to two-thirds of a crop. Western and northern sugarbushes had more like 75 percent to a full crop, he said.

Adam Parke of Barton said his crop was about three-fourths of a full crop. He has about 12,000 taps.

“This year was a fluke,” he said about the late start. “We just happened to be in a polar vortex.”

He said his season also started late, but once it started they boiled sap for 17 days straight.

“The flavor was wonderful,” he added. Parke’s company is called Shadow Lake Maples, and he sells most of the syrup in bulk and takes some with him to New York while selling Christmas trees there.

Parke said the bulk price has gone down a bit.

Marckres agreed the bulk price has gone down slightly. The biggest factor for the price of wholesale syrup is a bulk price set in November by the Canadian maple federation, Marckres said. He said a big factor in the price of bulk syrup for Vermont producers is how the U.S. dollar compares to the Canadian dollar in a given year.

Meanwhile, lots of Vermont maple syrup is going overseas where demand is growing.

“I think the retail price will stay pretty stable,” he said. “The marketers are doing a fantastic job.”

Steve Wheeler at Jed’s Maple in Derby said their sugarbush did well this spring.

“It was a good year for us,” he said. “What we call a full crop.”

Ken Borland of West Glover mostly sugars with buckets and enjoys working that way. For one thing, it keeps his woods open so he can more easily move around in them without tubing in the way. But he agreed with others who said not using a vacuum system means giving up some production per tap. This year Borland made a gallon of syrup for every eight taps, and a normal year it’s more like a gallon for four taps.

“It seemed to be awfully windy, and especially with buckets, it doesn’t run well when it’s windy,” Borland said. “I’ve sugared all my life, and it’s not an exact science,” he added.

Borland said he likes sugaring with buckets because the buckets last so long. Some of the buckets he is using were made around the year his father was born. Borland believes there is a difference in flavor using the old system as compared to plastic tubing, but he acknowledges that not everyone might agree or be able to taste the subtle differences.

Sugarmakers are also adjusting to a new system of grading maple syrup.

“By next January everyone needs to use the new grading system,” Marckres said. But people can use both systems until January 2017, and the term “Vermont fancy” can be used as a marketing description indefinitely.

Under the old system, grades of maple syrup were fancy, medium amber, dark amber, grade B and commercial grade. The new system will be universal and includes flavor descriptions, which Marckres said consumers have said in polls that they like. Under the new system, the lightest color of syrup, which used to be fancy, is now called golden color, delicate taste. The second lightest grade, which includes medium amber and part of dark amber, is called amber color, rich taste. The grade that used to describe the rest of dark amber and B is now called dark color, robust taste. And commercial grade, which is now legal to sell for table syrup, is called very dark color, strong taste.

Marckres said, so far, people seem to be getting used to the new system, and for those who like the traditional one, there will always be the ability to use the term Vermont fancy.

Marckres has been working with people who are considering tapping other species of trees including birch trees, butternut and black walnut. Birch syrup can bring $450 a gallon, he said. Marckres said with some of these syrups, reverse osmosis technology can help avoid a bitter taste created from boiling it for so long. While a gallon of maple syrup takes about 40 gallons of sap to make, a gallon of birch syrup takes 100 gallons of birch sap or more.

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