Sugarmakers are great at coming up with workarounds – ways to conserve energy, save time, reduce costs. But nobody has been able to avoid the reality that if you want to make more syrup, you’ll need more sap.
For many sugarmakers, access to sap is a challenge. They may not have many taps on their own land, they may have limited labor resources for tapping and collecting, or they may simply want to focus on the production process and not have the additional tasks of running lines, collecting sap, and maintaining a sugarbush. Given the compressed nature of the maple season, it’s often hard to keep up with gathering and production, particularly for one-person operations, and having others who tap trees and collect sap for your operation can be a great solution. But production equipment is a significant investment, and the only way to make it pay off is by having enough sap to turn into syrup. So buying sap is an attractive option for many sugarmakers.
For many years, sugarmakers have relied on tables to determine the price they should pay for syrup. The tables are created with a simple formula, taking the current bulk price of syrup and paying half of that price for sap, scaled based upon the sugar content of the sap. So if bulk syrup is selling for $2.50/lb, and the sap being sold is 2 percent sugar, the price is $0.32 per gallon. But there are far more variables that should be taken into account when calculating the purchase price for sap, so that both the person providing the sap and the sugarmaker buying it are getting a fair deal.
Cornell University’s Sugar Maple Research and Extension Program offers a spreadsheet that calculates the value of sap based on a range of variables, like fuel costs and production rates, at http://maple.dnr.cornell.edu/sapbuying.htm. It’s a great tool to help figure out how much the sap you’re considering buying is really worth.
For example, large, efficient operations might be willing to pay more for sap, since their other input costs are lower. A producer using reverse osmosis and a high-efficiency evaporator can make more syrup using less fuel, and needs to make good use of their expensive equipment by making more syrup in order to pay it off, and so the producer values sap more highly and may pay more than half of the price of the syrup that can be produced from the sap. Smaller operations, on the other hand, pay more for fuel and require more labor to make less syrup, and so have a lower profit margin and may not be able to afford to spend as much on sap. It is worth the exercise of figuring out the total cost, including labor, of each gallon of syrup made, to determine how much each gallon of sap is worth to your operation.
Another important consideration is whether the sap is delivered. Fuel costs, the costs of maintaining a vehicle that can transport sap, and the time it takes to drive to make a pickup can all be significant, so it makes sense to pay more for sap brought to your sugarhouse than for sap you have to pick up.
Finally, it is important to consider the impact of making more syrup on your operation. More syrup will mean more income, but there will be some more costs as well, along with additional time spent in the sugarhouse boiling. You’ll need drums to store the additional syrup, and space to keep it in. Other small costs, like additional electricity for a reverse osmosis and filter paper for a filter press will increase as well. While these costs should be more than made up for by the additional revenue from each gallon of syrup, it is also important to consider whether you have the market for more syrup, and what that market is. Each season brings fluctuations in the syrup supply, and there’s a big difference in your income between being able to put your syrup in jugs to sell at your farmstand, driving it a long distance to a packer to sell in bulk, or having it sit in drums in your sugarhouse unsold because of an oversupply in your region.
There are other considerations that should be taken into account when purchasing sap as well, ones that perhaps don’t fit well into a cost-analysis spreadsheet but might be the difference for whether you want to purchase sap from an individual at all. Do they follow tapping guidelines to keep their trees in good condition? How do they manage their sugarbush? What methods do they use to clean their lines and tanks? How quickly are they getting the sap to you after a run? Keep in mind that not all sap is created equal, particularly after it has been handled, so simply calculating value based on sugar content can be risky. It would be wise to make a batch of syrup using the sap in question before committing to any long-term agreements with sellers, to ensure that you can produce syrup of the quality you desire with the sap you are getting.
Cover photo: auraag/istock