Of all the quintessential New England foods, maple syrup is certainly the sweetest. Maple production provides important income, and income diversification, for New England's producers. The practice also helps steward New England landscapes, bringing smiles to leaf peepers and pancake lovers alike.
The U.S. maple industry has grown about 15 percent per year over the past several years, and in 2012, New England syrup sales totaled $45 million. New technology and growing demand for organic syrup have contributed to that growth. From 2003 to 2008, the number of maple trees in certified organic operations in New England increased 141 percent.
Growing demand for organic syrup helped Sue and Dave Folino develop their syrup operation from a large-scale hobby to a full-time business. They run Hillsboro Sugarworks in Bristol, Vt.
"We got organically certified 10 years ago because we felt that it would open doors and markets. Organic was becoming important to consumers who wanted to know product origin, quality and production methods," said Sue. Today, the Folinos sell to restaurants, co-op food stores, independent grocers and colleges.
Most syrup, however, is purchased by bulk buyers. Large-scale sugarhouses blend, bottle, label and distribute syrup under their own or private labels. They also create flavorings, sugar, maple candy and other maple products.
"The bulk buyers saw the opportunity in organic, and they were a big part of local sugar makers making the transition," said Matt Gedeon, who owns and operates Buck Mountain Maple in Fairfax, Vt. An organically certified grower since 1992, Gedeon had his land certified for organic maple production in 2007. It wasn't just new sugar makers going organic. Gene Branon runs Branon's West View Maples in Fairfield, Vt. The Branons have produced syrup for more than a century; they achieved organic certification in 2001.
In order to be certified organic, the Gedeons and Branons only had to make a few operational changes. Their forests were already managed for mixed species and mixed age classes according to an approved forest management plan (a certification requirement), and they weren't treating their sugar bushes with conventional herbicides or pesticides. For organic certification, the sugar makers had to switch to an organic defoamer (defoamers prevent boiling sap from bubbling over in the evaporator), increase record-keeping, and have an annual inspection. The New England Farmers Union (NEFU) advocates for the federal Organic Cost Share Program, which helps offset producers' certification costs, and which may be lost if Congress fails to pass a five-year farm bill.
Gregg Stevens, certification specialist for Vermont Organic Farmers (VOF), says that an easy transition to certified organic maple production is typical. VOF, or the relevant certifying agency, does provide some expertise that can help producers. "It's in the interest of all maple producers to manage their forests for long-term production," said Stevens. "However, organic producers are required to prioritize long-term forest ecosystem health over short-term sap production."
Organic certification has some perks. Bulk buyers pay a small price premium - currently 10 cents a pound - for organic syrup. "More distant national and international buyers seem to appreciate the assurance of food safety and product quality conferred by the USDA organic label," stated Stevens.
For organic sugarers who wholesale bottled syrup to co-ops and groceries or who sell directly to customers, there is no organic price premium. Many small-scale producers sell directly to customers who know their practices; they don't bother with certification. But for producers like Hillsboro Sugarworks, who sell more widely, certification is worthwhile. "The payoff comes from our repeat customers, who appreciate our product and that it has gone through the certification process," said Folino.
Gedeon is also building relationships with customers who appreciate a great product. Although most of Buck Mountain's maple syrup is sold to bulk buyers, Gedeon wholesales 20 percent of his product to several co-ops and markets whose food-savvy customers love the taste and quality.
"Syrup is like wine," said Gedeon. "The 'terroir' influences the taste; soil, minerals, weather all give syrup from a particular place a particular flavor." Gedeon makes the best syrup he can, and organic certification is, for him, consistent with that.
With seven generations of sugaring knowledge, the Branons also want to sell their organic syrup to discerning customers. Until recently, 99 percent of their syrup went to bulk buyers, but last year Branon's West View maple syrup became available through retail channels.
NEFU advocates for federal funds and initiatives that help maple producers be more competitive and sustainable - organic or not. The Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), administered by the USDA Rural Development agency, has been important in funding reverse osmosis (RO) machines. Maple producers use these to remove water from sap, greatly reducing the resources required to turn sap into syrup.
The Richardson Family Farm is a diversified operation in Woodstock, Vt., that has produced syrup for four generations. The Richardsons used two REAP grants to install RO machines. The reduced energy costs more than offset the installation and operating costs. Patricia Richardson, a family member and an NEFU board member, said, "We recognize how important such programs are for New England, and our membership in NEFU reflects our appreciation for NEFU's advocacy."
Other federal programs are also available to help maple producers. Branon and Gedeon used REAP grants for RO equipment. Gedeon used a USDA loan to create a forest management plan and a low-interest FSA loan to purchase the evaporator to start his maple business.
"Sometimes you know the right thing to do, but you don't have the funds," said J.R. Sloan, who runs a sugarhouse in Fletcher, Vt., and produces organic maple syrup for the bulk market. Sloan has used USDA REAP grants for RO machines and received assistance from the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
"Our goal is not to be the biggest sugar makers, but the most efficient, with the least environmental impact. I have five kids, so I want to set a good example," Sloan said.
Your NEFU membership supports advocacy on behalf of these and other exemplary maple producers. Join NEFU at http://www.newenglandfarmersunion.org, and please pass the syrup!
Sarah Andrysiak is a communications consultant for New England Farmers Union.