More people in the agricultural industry are realizing the profit potential for organic products. Of the more than 31,000 certified organic operations in the United States, according to the USDA, this country’s 260 certified organic maple syrup processors saw sweet revenues of almost $34 million in 2014. Understanding what makes maple syrup organic and how to become certified can help your organization make the change.

Organic versus conventional

For approved organic farming, the USDA prohibits gardening inputs including, but not limited to, genetically modified organisms, synthetic herbicides, pesticides rodenticides, sewage and irradiated materials in organic farming. Gregg Stevens, certification specialist at Richmond-based Vermont Organic Farmers, gives one example of what maple syrup processors must take as part of an organic certification process to keep “prohibited substances” out of the sugarbush and all production steps.

“Most ‘conventional’ maple syrup producers add a synthetic defoamer to their sap as it boils to keep it from bubbling up (and out of) the evaporator. The most commonly used synthetic defoamers contain propylene glycol and propyl gallate,” Stevens said. “Neither of these substances are allowed for use in organic production, so certified organic maple producers can’t use them. Instead, they typically use a certified organic vegetable oil as a defoamer, or another surfactant approved for use in certified organic food products.”

As Joan Cheetham, certification specialist at Unity-based Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) explained, organic maple certification also includes a commitment to standards to preserve the sugarbush’s well-being and longevity for the long-term. Adhering to maple tree species and age diversity requirements, along with tapping guidelines for maple trees, are examples of how a forest management plan must be crafted.

Is certification needed?

The first step, according to the USDA, is to determine if your business’ organic sales meet the threshold. If it’s less than $5,000 in annual sales, it’s not required by law, but can still be done on a voluntary basis. However, regardless of certification, if maple syrup is being represented as organic, it must follow organic standards.

After discussing organic certification expectations with an interested maple sap and syrup processor, Cheetham said her organization sends “an application, and in the end they send us their organic system plan. Their organic system plan (OSP) puts down on paper all the salient details about their operation. Basically what we are looking for in both in the sugarbush and the sugarhouse, are any possible sources of contamination because it’s supposed to be a pure, organic product.” Cheetham and Stevens highlighted important parts of an OSP as part of the certification process.

Land use history

Both Stevens and Cheetham’s certification process require an affidavit attesting the land subject to organic certification has not been applied with any synthetic materials (fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, rodenticides, etc.) within the past 36 months.

Buffer requirements

Ensuring a buffer between organic and conventionally grown crops is another requirement of an organic system plan. Stevens noted that while the National Organic Program doesn’t specify a minimum buffer, he recommends a buffer of 50 feet separating land with prohibited materials. If the buffer is on the processor’s land, no affidavit is required; however, an affidavit is required if the buffer is on the adjoining land to the designated property for maple syrup production.

Lichen growing on an old sugar maple tree in Northern Somerset County Maine

Detailed sugarbush maps

The MOFGA and VOF require detailed maps of all sugarbush used in organic maple syrup production. Requirements specific to VOF include sugarhouse and collection tank locations, how bordering land is used (crop, fallow, livestock, etc.), how many acres are used for sap production, proximity and size of each tree groupings.

Forest management plan

Stevens explained the VOF’s requirement includes having a minimum of 25 percent of “non-sugar maple species described in their forest management plan.” It doesn’t necessarily have to be in the same stands producers use to collect sap. However, it must be described in the overall forest management plan, showing how maple sap and syrup producers will focus on their commitment to biodiversity. Another example, according to Cheetham, is when it comes to balancing sustainability and tapping guidelines. A maple must be at least 54 inches and 10 inches in diameter for a single tap.

The forest management plan illustrates how organic certifiers show all growers and producers, including maple sap and syrup producers, along with managed sustainability, how to exhaust all natural options before using an approved synthetic material in accordance with organic regulations. Stevens explained questions to ask before an approved pesticide may be allowed.

“The organic rule [specifies] that before a crop producer goes to even an approved pesticide in organic production, there are things they need to do before they take that step. Have they selected for varieties that are resistant to common diseases in growing area? Have they maintained clean cultivation? Have they encouraged biodiversity to encourage native predators to a pest insect? Have they tried a biological control first before they use a spray?” Stevens said. “It encourages predator habitat, such as migratory song-birds, to come in [and] eat a lot of those pest insects. By not having that monoculture, you’re creating a more diverse habitat to encourage other predators that would hopefully control your insect problems before they get out of hand.”

Another important part of the organ system plan is record-keeping. Examples include production and sales logs that match. Other records, as Stevens highlights, include records for additional plots of land that come under management, owned or leased, as well as, “getting documentation that verifies that no neighboring land use will contaminate the areas used for organic production (including statements from utility companies that utility corridors adjacent to sugarbushes are not sprayed with herbicides).”

Completing the certification process

Once the application and organic system plan is received by the certifying agency, it’s reviewed to make sure it’s complete. An inspector visits the operation, looking at the sugarhouse and the sugarbush to ensure all harvesting and processing systems are in compliance with the National Organic Program and the certifying agencies guidelines. If they are, a certificate is issued for one year. Certification renewal is subject to the producer noting any OSP adjustments, the certifier reviewing the producer’s latest OSP and a yearly inspection to ensure compliance is still met.