State syrup makers coast to record year
By Peter Hirschfeld
VERMONT PRESS BUREAU | June 17,2009
Stefan Hard / Times Argus file
Burr Morse checks sap boiling in the pan near the start of the sugaring season in March at Morse Farm Sugarworks in East Montpelier. The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture reported a record year for Vermont maple syrup producers.
Good sugaring weather, technological innovations and a surge in new tap holes all boiled down to a record year for Vermont syrup producers, according to federal data released late last week.
The 920,000 gallons of maple syrup produced in Vermont this year amounted to a third of the nation's output. The figure marked a 30 percent increase over the notoriously bad 2008 season and is the highest on record since the U.S. Department of Agriculture began tracking syrup production in 1944.
"It's a very big deal because the demand for syrup in the last couple years especially has really exceeded supply," says Catherine Stevens with the Vermont Sugar Makers' Association. "It's great we have such a large supply this year because demand keeps growing."
The worldwide supply squeeze last year sent syrup prices soaring. Prices in Vermont averaged $39.20 per gallon in 2008 (the figure weighs retail, wholesale and bulk prices), up more than $10 over 2007. Despite what some are calling a banner year across the U.S. – production nationally is up by about 22 percent – demand continues to rise, and prices are holding steady.
"Syrup prices are very strong and the markets are strong also, so it's been a great year for us," said Robert Baird, a longtime Rutland County sugar maker.
Baird attributed record production this year at his North Chittenden operation primarily to solid weather and an increase in the number of trees he tapped. He said investments in technology, like vacuum pumps and stainless steel spouts, helped increase per-tap yield.
"I've been doing it since I got out of college in 1973, and we made more syrup this year than we ever have," Baird said. "… It's been a real bright spot for us and we feel very fortunate prices have been strong and continue to be."
Henry Marckres with the Vermont Agency of Agriculture said many of Vermont's approximately 2,000 sugar makers followed Baird's recipe for success. Syrup producers hammered more than 3 million tap holes in 2009, up from about 2.85 million in 2008.
"Last year we saw record prices for bulk syrup and so you had a lot of people that increased the number of taps they had in operation," Marckres said.
The vacuum pumps and state-of-the-art spouts increasingly employed by sugar makers like Baird, Marckres said, also helped buoy production. Each Vermont tap yielded an average of about .3 gallons of maple syrup, a 20-percent increase over 2008.
"It used to be that a quart per tap was a very good year, and now a lot of people are making a half-gallon of syrup per tap because with the vacuum on the trees they're getting more sap," he said. "We're seeing better systems that are more efficient."
Some sugar makers warn against calling 2009 a "banner" year, however. Veteran sugar maker Burr Morse said 2008 was so bad that almost any number would look good in comparison. The Montpelier producer said the self-reporting that the USDA relies on to aggregate figures also is flawed.
"We had an average season. I really have kind of a hard time seeing where the banner part comes in," Morse said. "I could almost believe 30 percent over last year, but only because last year was a very, very poor season."
Still, Morse said he's enjoying the high syrup prices that have accompanied a marked increase in worldwide demand. The varying per-gallon rates for retail, wholesale and bulk, he said, are enough right now to make sugar-making a viable agriculture endeavor.
Richard Green, who drilled about 5,000 tap holes at his Poultney operation this year, said world consumption has gone from 72 million pounds five years ago to closer to 120 million pounds today. Supply, he said, topped out at about 110 million pounds last year, though he said industry experts anticipate that figure to hit 150 million pounds in 2009 due to higher prices driving additional production.
"At some point we might see prices drop, but right now it's still looking good," Green said.
Vermont's syrup industry adds about $200 million annually to the Vermont economy, according to the University of Vermont's Proctor Maple Research Center.