On the surface, it would be safe to say that 2015 has been a good year. Technically though, the year, according to the sugarmaking industry, ended in June 2015. According to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, its Northeastern Regional Field Office reported that the region’s maple syrup production (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania and Vermont) rose 7 percent from 2014’s from 2.78 million gallons to 2.96 million gallons. The state of Vermont remained supreme, producing more than 1.39 million gallons, which represents nearly 41 percent of the nation’s maple syrup.
Plus, signs are pointing toward more upward projection. The USDA reported that the 3.4 million gallons collected this year was more than three times the corn syrup in 1995.
“Looking at the bigger scope, the last 20 years in maple have been a boom,” said Gary Bilek, president of the Pennsylvania Maple Association. “We have seen new technology coming out (tubing, vacuum pumps, etc). We are going through what many in the farming community went through in the ’50s, where there was money put into research and productivity was increased on the farm, thus crops were more profitable. We’re finally seeing this in the maple industry. Our sales and the market as a whole have been good.”
Bilek’s state as well as the rest of the Northeastern region have been busy. Taps in the Northeastern United States totaled 10.23 million, up 4 percent from last year, and accounted for 86 percent of the nation’s maple taps.
The USDA stated that the syrup yield per tree tap averaged 0.287 gallon in 2015, up 2 percent from 0.281 gallon in 2014. The highest yield was 0.31 gallon per tree tap in Vermont, followed by Maine with a yield of 0.3 gallon. The New England states, including New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut, have an average yield of 0.3 gallon per tap in 2015.
More maple, more demand
Bruce Bascom, principal owner of Bascom Maple Farms in New Hampshire, is also optimistic about the future. While at the North American Maple Syrup Council and International Maple Syrup Institute (NAMSC/IMSI) Annual Meeting last October, Bascom said the processing companies he spoke with are experiencing a sales pop as demand for the maple is up.
“At the moment, the market is expanding in the U.S… a little faster than production is expanding,” he said. “In the last couple of years, the reverse was true. For example, three years ago, prices were higher and there was more syrup being added each year with new trees and new technology.”
Bascom explained that since maple syrup sales are on the rise, the market demand for it could double in North America along with production in a relatively short time frame (10-15 years). “That has not always been the case,” he said.
The Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers, a private organization that regulates the price, production and marketing of maple syrup, shares Bascom’s assessment. The group reported overall consumption of 7 percent at 10 million pounds per year. Canada is the largest producer of maple syrup, with the United States serving as the federation’s largest export market.
Several factors come into play when accessing the increasing demand, noted Jacques Letourneau, chief executive officer of the Canadian-based Island Pond Maple Factory, a buyer of U.S. maple syrup, noted.
“The U.S. economy is getting better, more people have money to purchase these items and it’s been positive for our business,” he said. Island Pond Maple Factory had been looking into purchasing more U.S. syrup in the coming years. In July 2014, Quebec’s Bernard and Sons purchased more than 22,000 gallons of U.S. syrup from Vermont, New York, Pennsylvania and parts of the Midwest, and has a presence in the Northeast.
Letourneau forecasted that he doesn’t see the growth of demand dying down anytime soon. As for the supply, he said that it’s a bright side for the United States. Especially when the price is regulated by the world’s largest producing entity, Quebec.
“It’s a nice thing to have when 80 percent of the world’s production comes from a province where the market sets the price before the first pound; there’s money to be made no matter what,” Letourneau said about the U.S./Canadian dynamic. “It’s all the motivation for supply plus there’s a world population that wants it. It’s like riding a wave. Everything is in place for growth. That is the climate we’re seeing.”
The nutritional movement
Arguably, the increased global demand for maple could have been sparked by the efforts to promote the awareness of healthy eating and living, or as Bilek phrased it, “the nutritional movement.”
“The nutritional movement is not going to go away. People are more aware of health concerns, wanting to live longer and the cost of medicine now,” he said. “It is not unreasonable to say that I might live to be 90 or older. That wasn’t true in the past. Natural vs. processed sugar… that’s as far as you got to go to explain it. But you have to educate people about that. That’s our job. And it’s a big job.”
For more than five decades, Rob Lamothe, of Lamothe’s Sugar House in Burlington, Connecticut, has been perfecting the art of the maple syrup sell. Along with his wife Jean, Lamothe usually spends a typical Sunday morning after church preparing their farm market booth with maple items that include syrup jugs and maple lollipops for the kids.
“You touch a lot of people at farm markets,” he said of the experience that nets several hundred dollars in added revenue in the span of three hours. “You take your products to the consumer and you can talk to them directly. Marketing is a big deal. If I can get the kids to come over for the lollipops, I got the parents.”
Part of that marketing is getting the word out on maple syrup’s nutritional value. In 2012, the IMSI published a comprehensive journal titled, “The nutrition and health benefits of pure maple syrup,” promoting the natural sweetener (http://www.internationalmaplesyrupinstitute.com/uploads/7/0/9/2/7092109/__nutrition_and_health_benefits_of_pure_maple_syrup.pdf). The 200-plus-page document explains maple syrup’s health value by showcasing subject-related white papers as well as fact sheets and resource information.
Sugarmakers agree that the much-need marketing efforts of the Federation, IMSI, North American Maple Syrup Council, and other state and regional associations are paying off.
“The growth nationwide of maple is due to the movement of buying organic and locally,” Bascom said. “Maple is a real food and a non-artificial product, and it’s on the upward swing.”
It’s a big world out there
Most sugarmakers and buyers agree that despite the steady growth of the industry there’s still room for improvement. Considering that the average American consumes a little more than two ounces of maple syrup per year, more consumer exploration is needed.
“The industry is still pretty small and doesn’t have the scale of other ag markets,” Winton Pitcoff, coordinator of the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association, said. “Social media makes it easier to the get the word out and it involves less expense. There are a lot of untapped markets that are outside the borders of maple production.”
Just as important as a strong consumer base, Lamothe said, is a strong core of maple producers. Lamothe noted that the veteran sugarmakers and buyers are well positioned – via experience – to take on the ever-increasing demand.
“With the global market expanding, we can put in as many taps as we want and it won’t satisfy the market, but I still think the market is good and solid,” he said. “The individuals who make maple syrup are salt of the earth folk; they put 30-40 years into this, they’re good people.”
Cover photo: Marc Dufresne/istock