Sugarmakers often refer to maple syrup as liquid gold, and this year they aren’t kidding. The price per gallon this year has gone up about 70 percent over last year.
Maple syrup prices have skyrocketed because of a shortfall in production, primarily in Canada and northern New England. The shortage, coupled with an increased worldwide market for the natural sweetener, has put one of Vermont’s largest cash crops in record demand.
“Last year we were being paid roughly $2 per pound for fancy syrup, now (the bulk price) is $4 a pound for any grade,” said Rick Marsh, president of the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers’ Association.
Prices may dip in the near future, as Marsh said they generally do during sugaring season from mid-February to mid-April, but there are other factors this year that have caused the dramatic price increase.
“In the past few years the demand has grown from 80 million pound consumption to around 120 million pounds worldwide,” Marsh said. “In the past, people thought of maple syrup only for breakfast on pancakes, now it’s a sweetener and it has really become a big product that’s in demand overseas. It’s used in bakeries instead of white sugar and it’s a natural product that’s better for you.”
Vermont sugar makers produce about 500,000 gallons, or 5.5 million pounds of maple syrup each year. There are about 11 pounds in a gallon.
Until 2007, there had been a 40 million to 60 million pound surplus of syrup in Quebec, where about 80 percent of the world’s maple syrup is produced. That carry-over has dwindled in the last few years, and a very poor sugaring season last spring forced Quebec to sell its surplus.
“The surplus has been dwindling away since 2006 and was literally gone by March of last year, which was great for us because we had good crops and we received higher prices here than we’d ever received before,” said sugar maker and former president of the VMSMA Wilson “Bill” Clark, of Pawlet.
While the average bulk price of syrup is $4 per pound, gallons are often sold for $50 to $60, although many sugar makers sell their syrup for less than market value. Last year maple syrup sold for $35 to $45 per gallon.
Smith said he sells his retail gallons at a discounted rate of $40 because he was able to make almost twice as much profit selling drums (40 gallons) of syrup wholesale to large corporations at the end of the 2008 sugaring season.
He said his wholesale per gallon rate for syrup jumped from $29 in 2007 to $44 in 2008.
Smith said it’s worth keeping retail prices low to keep his loyal customers happy, even though he knows it could be sold in a different market for more profit.
Green said she sells syrup by the gallon for $38 at the sugarhouse and $43 at farmers’ markets.
“Gas prices, of course, were up and we figured if people are willing to spend their gas to drive out and buy syrup and maple products we’d give them a deal for that,” she said.
“We could have probably made more money if we had just sold the syrup outright in the barrel because the wholesale price was so high, the demand was great for it and the supply was low,” Green said. “But if this coming season the wholesale price drops, we would have lost our customers.”
Why production slowed
Bitter cold temperatures and 15-20 feet of snow that blanketed the ground in Quebec until April kept roots of the northern maples frozen and prevented sugar makers from unburying their tubing and tapping before April in some areas, Marsh said.
As a result, production slowed to just 80 million pounds of maple syrup – only two-thirds of the global demand, Marsh said.
“The surplus was held over producers’ heads for many years and hurt the price of syrup. In the 1980s the price was about $3 a pound one year, and the next year it was $1 a pound because everyone had a good year, and we had a good surplus,” Marsh said.
Although the profits for sugaring are greater than ever without a surplus, Marsh said not having a safety stash is forcing sugar makers to walk a slippery path in a business that is totally reliant on the weather.
“I feel we need to hold around a 40- to 50-pound surplus from year to year,” Marsh said. “The thing we worry about is this coming spring we need to have a bumper crop just so we can have enough syrup to fill the markets for the coming year.”
Another poor crop this spring could force maple consumers and food manufacturers to find alternative sweeteners. It could also push prices even higher – and turn others away from real maple syrup.
“I would say if we have another short crop, this could hurt our industry for many years to come,” Marsh said. “We’ve already lost some market shares to people who couldn’t get the product this past year … as of now we haven’t lost a majority of these but if we have another short crop we will lose these and they wouldn’t come back.”
Marsh said there are other factors pushing the price of syrup up, namely the rising cost of production and marketing and the weakened U.S. dollar.
Higher profits are attracting more people to the industry and pushing longtime producers to upgrade to more efficient and cost-effective equipment.
“These are record high prices and in southern Vermont where they had a very good year, those producers probably never saw it as good and may never again; it was a record year for production and record high for prices,” Marsh said. “So there’s a reason people are getting excited.”
At a recent maple council meeting, Clark said the industry predicts another 5 million taps will be drawing sap this spring, and 250,000 of those taps will be in the backwoods of Vermont.
Eric Sorkin and his wife are newcomers to the industry. They run an organic vegetable farm in Cambridge, and for the first time this spring they will tap 30,000 maple trees on their 700-acre property.
“It’s something we’ve always intended on doing … and it’s very easy to justify jumping in given where the prices are right now,” Sorkin said. “We’ve been kicking ourselves for not being set up already.”
While the start up costs are high, Sorkin said he believes his sugar making operation will be profitable.
“Rather than starting up small, we’re pretty much going for it and starting big to take advantage while the prices are high.”
Other longtime sugar makers are also trying to capitalize on the high price point by updating their equipment and increasing the number of taps per tree.
Jeff Smith, owner of Smith Maple Crest Farm, produced 2,400 gallons of syrup from the 6,000 taps on maples in his Shrewsbury forests last year. Smith increases the number of taps he puts out each year.
“This year I’m hoping for more than 500 new taps on my trees,” Smith said.
Pam and Richard Green, owners of Green’s Sugarhouse in Poultney, use vacuum pumps to pull sap from the trees and reverse osmosis to lower the water content in the sap more efficiently.
“The reverse osmosis machine is the big energy and time saver for us,” Pam Green said.
Green said 1,250 gallons of sap — at about 2 percent sugar — is turned into 300 gallons of concentrated sap at 8 percent sugar in one hour with the reverse osmosis machine, cutting the amount of fuel needed to boil the sap into syrup. It takes 40 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of maple syrup.
Vacuums also pull more sap from trees than traditional taps that let the sap drip into a bucket.
“With the vacuums you can get up to two-thirds of a gallon (of syrup) per tap in a good year … the average for a lot of good years would have produced one-quarter gallon of syrup,” Clark said.
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