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Gearing Up for a Sweet Season

  • With tapping materials in hand, Reid Richardson crosses a field to tap a tree at Richardson Family Farm in Hartland. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    With tapping materials in hand, Reid Richardson crosses a field to tap a tree at Richardson Family Farm in Hartland. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • At Richardson Family Farm, Gordon Richardson checks the reverse osmosis machine used to lower the water content of the sap before it’s boiled. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    At Richardson Family Farm, Gordon Richardson checks the reverse osmosis machine used to lower the water content of the sap before it’s boiled. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Reid Richardson taps a maple tree at Richardson Family Farm in Hartland. Richardson said he taps about 600 trees a day. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    Reid Richardson taps a maple tree at Richardson Family Farm in Hartland. Richardson said he taps about 600 trees a day. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Reid Richardson attaches plastic tubing to a tap he had placed at Richardson Family Farm. (Valey News - Jennifer Hauck)

    Reid Richardson attaches plastic tubing to a tap he had placed at Richardson Family Farm. (Valey News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • A collection of maple sugaring mementos is on display in the sugarhouse at Richardson Family Farm. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    A collection of maple sugaring mementos is on display in the sugarhouse at Richardson Family Farm. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • With tapping materials in hand, Reid Richardson crosses a field to tap a tree at Richardson Family Farm in Hartland. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
  • At Richardson Family Farm, Gordon Richardson checks the reverse osmosis machine used to lower the water content of the sap before it’s boiled. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
  • Reid Richardson taps a maple tree at Richardson Family Farm in Hartland. Richardson said he taps about 600 trees a day. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
  • Reid Richardson attaches plastic tubing to a tap he had placed at Richardson Family Farm. (Valey News - Jennifer Hauck)
  • A collection of maple sugaring mementos is on display in the sugarhouse at Richardson Family Farm. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

During the last five years, improved technology and harvesting practices have helped Vermont and New Hampshire sugarmakers dramatically increase the production of maple products at a rate so rapid that it has raised concerns with some producers that their efforts could outstrip demand.

But the myriad factors that affect their annual output — weather, contamination and animals damaging equipment — and an expanding global market make overproduction a distant concern, researchers, farmers and others connected to the business say.

“I hear some people talk about us growing too fast, but I’m not too concerned about production growing faster than sales, particularly on the U.S. side of the border, in the next five to 10 years,” said Bruce Bascom, who owns and operates Bascom Maple Farms in Acworth, N.H., a multi-faceted business that produces syrup on a large scale, buys and sells wholesale bulk syrup and sells sugaring equipment.

“Right now, we can sell everything we can get and produce, and I don’t know of anybody who stores much syrup around here or in New York,” said Bascom, who taps 75,000 trees annually and buys bulk syrup from about 3,000 farmers.

The biggest enemy of maple producers is the weather, which dictates the workflow of the season, said University of Vermont Extension Service maple specialist George Cook, a Norwich native now living and working in Morristown, Vt.

For good sugaring, temperatures need to be above freezing during the day, which causes the sap to rise, and below freezing at night, which forces sap to drop back down. Ideal conditions are highs in the upper 30s to low 40s during the day and in the 20s or teens at night. As long as those conditions hold up, farmers can keep making syrup. When the temperatures stay above freezing, the trees will start to bud, which affects the sugars in the sap and ends the season.

Although the season may be three weeks away, most producers are taping trees now, positioning themselves for when the sap starts to rise.

“We’re watching the weather. Temperatures are going to rise, and after they do, you can’t get those (sugaring) days back once they’re gone,” Cook said.

Vermont farmers produce almost half of all the maple syrup in the U.S., about 1 million gallons annually, followed distantly by New York and Maine. New Hampshire, where many of the maple trees have gone to timber, ranks fifth, making about 110,000 gallons a year or 5 percent of the country’s total production, figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture show.

However, the U.S. production of roughly 2.4 million gallons annually is dwarfed by Canada — mostly Quebec — which makes about 10.9 million gallons, or about 80 percent of the world’s syrup.

So much maple is produced in Canada that the government has set a floor price for syrup and a “cartel” buys any surplus, stores it, and releases it when supplies are low and prices higher.

Bascom said he doesn’t see a Canadian-type system developing in the U.S. any time soon.

“We could come to that, but it’s going to be a ways off.”

Despite the bad season last year, maple production in Vermont has grown about 5 percent a year for the last five years and about 56 percent from 1992 to 2010, said Tim Perkins, director of the University of Vermont Proctor Maple Research Center in Underhill.

If the weather cooperates this season, and indications are that it will, Vermont could be on the way to the record production of 1.1 million gallons, Perkins said.

Production increases are directly attributable to better equipment and using the best sugaring practices, he said.

“Essentially we’ve improved production a couple of ways — a better vacuum system is pulling more and more sap out of the trees, and there’s new tubing material that increases the efficiency of the flow of sap.”

Many producers also are using disposable spouts. In the past, spouts were used season after season. The new spouts are cleaner and also have a backflow valve that prevents sap from flowing back into the tree, Perkins said.

“When the sap is sucked back in, it brings with it (contamination) from the tubing, which causes the tree to react and seal off the tap area to protect the rest of the tree,” he said. “It’s a natural healing process for the tree, but it prevents any more sap from flowing through the tap. The check valve in the spout prevents that.”

Typically, farmers are able to get two or three taps on larger trees. Research has shown that even though the new vacuum systems are increasing the volume of sap removed, the process doesn’t harm the tree or affect the taste of the syrup, Perkins said

And tapping the trees also doesn’t affect the longevity of a tree. Some trees that are still producing are more than 100 years old, he said.

Each tap will produce 20 gallons of sap, which yields about a half gallon of syrup.

In an hour, small evaporators can boil about 25 gallons of sap, which has an average sugar content of about 2.5 percent. By law, syrup in Vermont must be 66 percent sugar and 66.9 percent in New Hampshire. Producers with large evaporators can boil about 400 gallons of sap an hour, according to Cornell University’s Maple Research and Extension Program.

The highest grade syrup — light amber and fancy — in New Hampshire and Vermont retails for about $75 to $80 a gallon, but most producers sell it in smaller quantities, which increases the price, Bascom said. Wholesale prices are about half the retail price.

Sales in the United States are valued at about $93 million — about $33 million in Vermont and around $3 million in New Hampshire.

There are a number of areas of the market for U.S. sugarmakers that have not been explored, including the production of organic syrup and expanding sales to Europe, said Peter Thomson, who owns Mt. Cube Farm in Orford and has 9,000 taps.

“There’s a huge market for maple syrup,” he said. “We’ve got a long way to go. We can make a whole lot more.”

In the more than 50 years that he’s been sugaring, Gordon Richardson, who operates the Richardson Family Farm in Hartland with his sons and daughter-in-law, has seen a lot of changes in technology and sugaring methods — from buckets hung on trees and gathered with horse-drawn sleds to reverse osmosis filtration and vacuum collection systems that pipe sap into the sugarhouse.

The farm has 8,000 taps and sells most of the syrup in bulk, he said.

Although the new technology reduces labor and improves production, Richardson said, some age-old sugaring setbacks still exist.

“We’ve had a problem with coyotes chewing through our lines and cutting them,” he said. “We’re not quite sure why they do it, but we have to fix it.”

Warren Johnston can be reached at wjohnston@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.

CORRECTION

This article has been amended to correct an earlier error. The following correction appeared in the Wednesday, Feb. 20 edition of the Valley News.

Peter Thomson is the owner of Mt. Cube Farm in Orford. A story on the maple syrup industry in the Sunday Valley News misspelled his last name.