Sugar shacks, once a favorite subject for photographers, are now a favorite target of thieves. According to law enforcement, this type of theft is one of the ripple effects of the opioid drug addiction problem. Sheriff Robert W. Norris in Franklin County, Vermont, has seen firsthand how this problem has negatively impacted sugar makers in his county. In the past two years he has had five official complaints from sugar makers about theft, but he also knows there are a handful of operations that do not report theft.
He said, “Ten years ago, this wasn’t a problem.” Although some thieves still target maple syrup, more often they are looking for easily transported items like drills, chainsaws, taps and tools that can be sold for drug money. Because it is typically a crime of opportunity, it is very hard to combat.
A sugar shack is often located in out-of-the-way places, off the side of the road or even out in the sugar bush. This makes it easy for thieves on ATVs or snowmobiles to take what is not theirs and for the stolen items to go unnoticed by owners until they visit their sugar shacks in February as they prepare for the next sugar season.
Because sugar shacks are only used a few weeks out of the year, thefts often go unrecorded until well after the crime has occurred. Jeff Wallin, Director of Vermont Crime Information Center, said that there are no reliable statewide or national statistics directly related to thefts from maple operations, whether syrup or equipment.
“No one is gathering information about maple-related thefts at the state or federal level. This kind of micro level of data gathering is just not done,” Wallin said.
The result is that when a sugar shack is robbed, the crime falls into the larger category of theft. The only way to gather information about sugaring thefts is to talk to people in the industry or local law enforcement who are familiar with the sugaring community. Even then, many sugar makers don’t want to put their operations at risk by publicly talking about theft or what they do to protect their tools, equipment and syrup.
A sugar maker in Franklin County who asked not to be identified explained that he has been robbed three times. About a year ago a group of thieves stole tools, chainsaws, helmets and easy-to-carry items. The stolen goods were eventually found at a property in a neighboring town, but because they were found with other stolen property, no one recorded them as being stolen from a sugaring operation. This sugar maker knows of other thefts in his community but said that often they are quietly handled by the families who have been robbed.
As a result of the increasing thefts, he said that he has changed the way he approaches securing his sugaring tools and equipment. He parks all vehicles out of sight. He installs doors and windows only as needed to let in light and gain entrance. He also installed bars on the windows and added four security cameras. These security measures increase the cost of new buildings, which therefore increases the price he must get for a gallon of maple syrup.
Although unlikely that there will be a repeat of the great Canadian sugar heist of 2013, where thieves made off with $18 million in maple syrup, maple-related crime is on the increase.
So how can you protect your maple syrup and your investment in tools and equipment? Normal commonsense measures are easy and will thwart all but the most determined criminal. Locked doors and lights can help protect your sugar shack. Norris recommends removing all syrup from unlocked buildings at the end of each day. He also recommends investing in security cameras, which should cover all entrance doors and all valuables. Because it is unlikely that someone is going to steal a heavy arch, video coverage of the arch is not necessary.
Several sugar makers spoke about a set of four cameras that they found at Costco as being easy to install and worth the cost. Costco, Lowe’s and Home Depot all have a version of these outdoor security cameras, each with night vision and all with water-resistance or weatherproof ratings. The average cost for the least expensive four-pack of cameras is about $300. Given that most sugar houses do have electricity these days, Norris said that buying the wired security cameras rather than battery operated is wise.
In addition to applying practical safety measures mentioned, park ATVs out of sight of the road and install motion-activated floodlights in strategic locations. Experts advise bright light bulbs that are mounted fairly high on a wall so that they throw light over a large area. You can find motion-activated flood lights at Costco, Lowe’s and Home Depot for an average cost of $30-$80. As more states allocate funding to address the opioid addiction problem, sugar makers should see some relief.