Bonus Content - Preparing for Strong Maple Branding in Maine

1/30/2012

Photo courtesy of Chris Botka.

Chris Botka's brand, Maine Mountain Maple, is served in area restaurants

and available for purchase in stores and on line.




This is bonus content that accompanies our February maple feature! Visit www.farmingmagazine.com for our feature on Maine Maple
.



Chris Botka wants people to associate Maine with maple syrup.

by Sally Colby


        "When you say the word lobster, you say the word Maine," said Botka, who manages a 60-acre sugar bush in Rangeley, Maine. "Everyone hears about Maine's paper mills, potatoes, blueberries and lobster. I want people to relate the same way to Maine maple syrup."

        Botka, who has been sugaring for nearly 25 years, believes that Maine farmers and landowners can benefit from one of the state's richest resources: hard maples. To that end, he helped create the Maine Maple Task Force Study Group in 2011. The group recently reported to the state legislature on a variety of industry issues, including the need for producer development and education, exploration of value-added maple syrup products, potential for export of maple syrup, and branding for Maine-produced maple syrup.

Chris Botka offers a variety of Maine maple products through his Maine Mountain Maple brand, including gift baskets and custom-bottled maple syrup.


        The report stated that Maine has 1.3 million acres that support an estimated 38.5 million sugar and red maple trees, with a potential of 41.3 million taps. That translates to a potential 10.3 million gallons of maple syrup, which is significantly more than the estimated 360,000 gallons produced in 2011.

        "When my dream became reality and we wrote the bill, I don't think anyone gave it serious thought," said Botka. "Nobody wanted to push it, there was no money. But as hearings progressed, they realized they had to sink their teeth in and they passed the bill. It went to the senate and cleared there, and the governor signed it."

        Botka estimates that the demand for maple syrup is probably 40 to 50 percent greater than the supply, so farmers stand to benefit through supplemental income on land they already own. "They might have 50 acres of maple trees and need money," said Botka.

        "Cutting the trees down and sending them to the wood mill gives them a fast check, but tapping trees gives the farmer a small amount of money over a period of time. We have to find a balance so large landowners realize that this is lucrative, and small woodlot owners jump on board and either lease or do the sugaring themselves."

        Efforts to promote the industry have been mostly among those who are already sugaring. Botka believes that in order to make progress, the effort needs to reach the public. To that end, Botka has distributed travel articles and has appeared on Maine public television and cooking shows. He's also using social media to promote Maine maple syrup, with an emphasis on recipes and industry information. Some of his followers include food groups, wedding planners and other businesses that look at maple syrup from a different perspective than people who farm.

        The current challenge is getting information about maple sugaring to farmers so they can help build the brand. "The farmer already knows about milking cows," said Botka. "Is it worth it for him to learn a new crop? For farmers who already market added-value products, such as ice cream, the addition of maple syrup is just one more way to do that."
Botka is a strong supporter of maple syrup associations, continuing education classes and support for experienced and inexperienced maple sugarers. He's an active member of the Maine Maple Producers Association (www.mainemapleproducers.com), the Southern Maine Maple Sugarmakers Association (www.smmsa.org), the IMSA and the North American Maple Producers Association.

        "There's always new technology to learn about," said Botka. "You never know enough. The only way to get ahead is to keep an open mind."





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