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Vermont faces maple syrup jug shortage

  • Maple syrup bottles line the walls of Huckins Maple Farm in Tilton on Saturday, March 25, 2017, during New Hampshire Maple Weekend. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

  • Barbara Lassonde fills a bottle of maple syrup on Thursday. It's one of the various preparations Beaver Meadowbrook Farm is making for the Kearsarge Maple Festival, which takes place in Warner during New Hampshire Maple Weekend. Elodie Reed

Published: 6/27/2021 7:29:19 PM
Modified: 6/27/2021 7:29:21 PM

With a short sugaring season and low sugar content in sap, Vermont’s maple syrup producers have had a tough year. Now, many small sugarmakers face a new challenge: a shortage of plastic maple syrup jugs.

When sugarmakers tried to place their orders at the beginning of the year, they discovered their usual suppliers had 40-week lead times. And now, as their stores of plastic jugs run low, they are trying to figure out how to stick it out until the fall.

Betsy Luce is co-owner of Sugarbush Farm, a family-owned maple farm in Woodstock that she said has been making syrup for 45 years. At the beginning of each year, the farm buys a “tractor trailer load” of plastic jugs with the farm’s logo, she said, and they typically arrive 10 weeks later.

This year, the order she placed in January will arrive 10 months later — in October. In the meantime, Luce said the farm has been buying blank jugs from a variety of sugarmaking equipment suppliers.

“Once a month, we call around to all the various ones and see if they’ve gotten any more in, and we send our truck right down that day before somebody else buys them,” she said.

But that option is more expensive, Luce said, because it adds another middleman and, with it, a 50- to 75-cent increase in the price per jug.

Temporary solutions for plastic jug delays have meant added expenses for many small sugarmakers. April Lemay, owner of April’s Maple in Canaan, Vt., has switched to unlabeled jugs while she waits for an order that her supplier said should arrive in October or November.

For Lemay, there’s been no problem so far in getting plain plastic jugs. The delays are for jugs printed with the sugarmaker’s logo. She now has to order paper labels for the jugs and apply them by hand.

“It’s more expensive,” she said. “It takes more time, which is also expensive.”

But for some, even plain jugs are not easy to come by. Meghan Jarvis, co-owner of the Vermont Maple Farm in Corinth, said she called around after her normal supplier told her to expect 40-week delays. Though she eventually found some jugs, “because everyone else is in the same situation, it really wasn’t easy,” she said.

Sugarmakers also worry that packaging changes might confuse customers who are accustomed to a certain look. Jarvis said she has put a disclaimer on the farm’s website, saying that products might not arrive in the same packaging as pictured.

Some customers have questioned the origin of syrup in generic jugs. Luce said Sugarbush still has a few of its old jugs in less popular sizes, in addition to jugs with generic “pure Vermont maple syrup” labels.

“They say, ‘Oh, did you really make all this syrup, or did you buy it from somebody else?’ ” she said. “We can send them to our sugarhouse and show them where we make it, and hopefully we convince them.”

Long lead times for labeled jugs stem from a variety of factors, said Owen Manahan, packaging sales manager at Dominion & Grimm in St. Albans, an equipment manufacturer and packaging supplier for sugarmakers.

“Throughout the last year during the pandemic, there was an increase in syrup consumption as a whole,” Manahan said. “The market grew, but how the product went to market changed.”

With more people ordering syrup online instead of eating it at restaurants or buying it from trade shows and specialty stores, the industry’s packaging needs shifted, Manahan said. That meant more plastic jugs and commodity glass bottles, he said, and producers had trouble keeping up with demand at first.

Manahan also attributed the delays to labor shortages and shortages in raw materials.

“I think it’s the same thing that every other industry has been struggling through, but it’s just apparent in the jug world because there’s so few people that produce them that it really has a trickle-down effect to every sugarmaker,” he said.

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