Back in 1993, the “Got Milk?” campaign launched and was an immediate success. It was the brainchild of a collective, formed by milk producers, who banded together to get the word out about milk.
Following in their footsteps, Mark Cannella, University of Vermont Extension, has been working with the International Maple Syrup Institute, a sustainable funding community, which focuses on market development and policy. According to Cannella maple producers and producer associations appear to be focusing on how producers in the maple industry might find a way to raise product awareness and allow those in the industry to maintain continuous growth and profit.
During the 1800s, Cannella noted, maple syrup was at its highest level of production in the U.S. However, it was viewed more as a utility, not the specialty product you see on store shelves today. “There was a connection, kind of patriotic in theme, about keeping to domestic sweeteners,” Cannella said.
As far back as 1905, “there were producers that wanted to make a claim to consumers about this nostalgic nature of open kettle maple syrup,” Cannella said.
Around this same period, the Federal Food and Drug Act was enacted to “prohibit the interstate commerce for ‘adulted foods,’” Cannella said, adding, more specifically, “economic adulted foods.”
“The relationship of maple syrup to the evolution of these laws involves the concept of cutting the syrup with cheaper sucrose and sugar options,” Cannella explained – thus the idea of economic adulteration.
Helping to push the idea of the modern collective into being was the Agricultural Marketing Agreement (AMA), which allowed for the ag industry to work together and strategize on supply, demand and price. What eventually followed, in 2021, was the International Maple Syrup Institute (IMS), “establishing the sustainable funding committee to investigate frameworks for funding and the promotion and marketing primarily of maple syrup,” Cannella said.
Made up of producers, industry leaders and manufacturers, the goal of the institute has been to advance the idea that funding would come directly from the producers themselves.
There have been no hard and fast rules or laws passed amongst the participants, but the focus is “the exploration of a mechanism to enhance the market presence for the maple community,” Cannella said. As maple syrup continues to hit record crops, it has increased the committee’s desire to ensure that market development and expansion keep pace with the increase in maple sap and syrup supply.
Through conversations with leaders in the maple industry, Cannella noted there is strong consumption in the maple producing areas of New England and the Northern Midwest. “I (also) think there are huge opportunities and priorities about expanding demand in non-maple producing regions,” Cannella said. “In these areas of the United States there is an intentional awareness about getting product into those marketplaces, especially in local regions where people are really experiencing strong competition in the marketplace trying to sell syrup locally.”
Ultimately, one of the biggest questions producers want an answer to is if they were able to quadruple the amount of syrup sold per capita, how would that affect the price and the maple syrup movement overall?
To start, the issue is to figure out why consumption, from 2016 to 2020, increased 42% in Canada compared to only 18% in the U.S. Noting there are certainly cultural differences between the two nations, Cannella said his feeling is based on the above-mentioned notion that there would be a solid increase if the maple syrup industry were to expand greatly into other regions, such as the South and West portions of the U.S.
The New York State Maple Producer Association (NYSMPA), headed by Executive Director Helen Thomas, has been doing research on different consumer preferences. Midway through one project, they have come to find that many consumers cannot differentiate between pure maple syrup and what Cannella described as “corn-based syrups like the Log Cabin brand.” The researchers believe one explanation could be because these people have not received educational messaging about pure maple syrup.
Cannella noted the above as an example of information that could inform a strategy for a collective promotion.
The end goal for a collective is “not about this private or branded product promotion or product advertisements, but this idea of raising consumer and buyer awareness for a group of products – in this case, pure maple syrup – or a key ingredient to benefit market development for the entirety of the participants in the sector,” Cannella said.
He added, “It would also be to increase demand, over time, to maintain price, or apply upward pressure on price, that could sustain or enhance producer purchasing power.”
Cannella focuses on the fact that the desire to increase demand over time is different than sales. “It’s about growing the market, supply keeping up with demand, not emptying the warehouse and being done,” he said. “It’s about generic promotion in a way that will lift all the participants in the sector, not just one label.”
Interestingly, Cannella shared, there are several cooperatives that have merged. He cited a general example of “a commodity crop that joined up with a type of service crop that are not agriculturally related but aren’t particularly just selling agricultural products.”
For those on the buying end, Cannella brought up the fact that there are buyers cooperatives that can harness their buying power. “It could be a consumer cooperative that buys in bulk and then the buyers of that product can access that discount for such things as fuel and utilities,” he said. He pointed out having a sellers’ collective would be an excellent complement to one for buyers.
Cannella suggested looking into the possibility of working with a federal program. Although a cooperative is a private entity, many sectors still flow into federal programs, such as the sea food industry did with NOAA.
To learn more about the IMS, visit internationalmaplesyrupinstitute.com.
by Jessica Bern