It's boom times in the maple syrup industry.
According to the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service, domestic production of maple syrup grew 70% from last year. Of course, the biggest beneficiary of the growth was Vermont, which is responsible for 40% of all maple syrup production in the U.S. This year, the mid-February to mid-April harvest season produced 1.32 million gallons of maple syrup, a 76% increase from 2012 and the largest yield for the state in 70 years.
The USDA's actual 2013 Maple Syrup Product Report could not be accessed due to the government shutdown. But, according to figures provided by Chicago-based market research firm IRI, the Maple/Pancake and Waffle Syrup category sold 205 million units and collected $694 million through the 52 weeks ended September 8, an increase of 2% over last year. The Private Label/Pancake and Waffle Syrup category accounted for 76.5 million units and $222.8 million of that, an increase of 4.7% from 2012.
Below are several factors that have created a virtuous cycle leading to a resurgence in maple syrup production in the state.
More trees, increased efficiency.
Not only are more trees being tapped for sap now than ever before, but thanks to technological advances, they are yielding more sap per tree than in the past.
According to the USDA, there are 3.5 million trees actively being tapped for sap in Vermont, an increase of 1 million trees since 2005. Each tree on average produces 0.35 gallons of syrup per tap, 33% more than the average a decade ago. (Roughly speaking, 40 gallons of sap produces one gallon of syrup.)
While the number of trees tapped seems large, it represents less than 5% of the state's total maple tree population, said Matt Gordon, executive director of the Vermont Maple Sugar Maker's Association. To main sustainability, the University of Vermont publishes proper sap collection guidelines that, for instance, advise not tapping trees that are less than 40 years old.
"Once full-sized, the amount of sap taken out is small in the grand scheme of things," Gordon said, adding that there is even room to grow the market further.
Technological improvements have led to full-time sugaring.
Not unlike with other industries, technological advances have impacted how and when maple syrup is produced.
Whereas in the past, farmers would actually collect sap in buckets, now a complex system of tubes, vacuums, and spouts are used. Together, this system pulls sap from trees and delivers it to sugaring houses where it is turned into syrup. These advances also allow for sap to be harvested over a longer period of time or during periodic warm spells — sap generally requires overnight low temperatures below freezing and daytime temperatures between 40 and 45 degrees to run — and greatly reduces the chances of it being reabsorbed into the trees or spilled after collection.
Once in the sugar house, a process of reverse osmosis is used to remove water from the sap to increase its sugar ratio. Fresh sap has about 15–16% sugar, whereas maple syrup has upwards of 65% sugar. Gordon said over the last decade Vermont farmers have been using "pre-heaters" to quickly bring the sap close to a boiling point, which allows them to turn it into maple syrup quicker. Speed is important since sap can spoil.
Rising consumer demand has turned farmers into entrepreneurs.
In the past, farmers viewed sap collecting as an ancillary to their core operation. Now, however, the growth in volume coupled with the rise of e-commerce and a fan base of maple syrup enthusiasts that rivals those of craft beer or other artisanal products, has led farmers to think of sap collecting as more of an investment or business endeavor.
"We are seeing people tapping a sugarbush who have never sugared before," said Gordon.
Gordon said sap farms range in size from small operations that have around 2,000–5,000 taps to large operations that have between 30,000–50,000. He said larger operations typically sell maple syrup in bulk while those on the smaller side often run specialty shops — most likely over the internet — that use maple for syrup as well as an ingredient in other things like salad dressing or mustard.
But perhaps the best illustration of rising consumer demand for Vermont's maple syrup is this: Export sales to countries like Australia and Thailand have seen a dramatic increase in recent years.