By Mike Dunphy
One thing I’ve always adored about Vermont is how little things change. Having grown up here, but lived much of my adult life abroad, it’s been endlessly gratifying to return for visits and find the Vermont I knew more or less intact. Even if the faces have changed, the uniforms haven’t.
This time, however, there was one very noticeable change in the maple section of the co-ops and organic markets. The usual plastic jugs and maple leaf glass bottles not only feature a new rating system (so long “grade B”) but are being crowded out by altogether swankier packaging not unlike hair tonic bottles in vintage-style Brooklyn barbershops, and perhaps more bizarrely, infusions of everything from makrut leaf and hibiscus to cardamom and elderberry. Still, other bottles claim aging in rum or bourbon barrels.
Photo: Vermont Tourism
Just what the heck is going on?
Admittedly, my initial shock was reflected by maple legend Burr Morse, whose family has been producing maple syrup for six generations, “Why would you want to mess with a product that’s already perfect?” It’s a sentiment echoed by Bette Lambert of Silloway Maple, which has been producing syrup since the 1940s. “Nothing will be finer than plain maple syrup. You can hardly beat it by changing it in any way.”
The Market Overfloweth
While many aspects of the maple market in Vermont are up for debate, there’s no question at all regarding its massive growth in recent years. As Mark Isselhardt, a maple specialist at UVM’s Maple Research Center in Proctor, explains, “If you were to take the long term average between the 1970s, ‘80s, ‘90s and now, the industry is about three-and-a-halftimes as large, and we’ve had a rapid period of growth starting around the early 2000s.”
In the first economic contribution study of Vermont’s maple industry, released in August 2015 by the University of Vermont, the data supplied abundant proof. Production leapt from 570,000 gallons in 1992 to 1,320,000 in 2014, which translated into an equally impressive 150 percent increase in value, from $19,755,594 in 1992 to $49,432,000 in 2015, making maple the second most valued agricultural commodity in Vermont. The next two years saw even greater growth. In 2016, the value of production totaled $59.7 million, up 28 percent from the previous season, and the 2017 season produced 1.98 million gallons, the second highest production on record.
Much of the reason for the increased production can be found by looking north to Quebec. Although Vermont produces 42 percent of maple syrup on the national market, it’s still a small fry on the world scene compared to Quebec, which accounts for about 70 percent of global production. With such a massive market share, and one organization to rule them all—The Fédération des producteurs acéricoles du Québec, aka The Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers—Quebec commands the market and sets the global price.
“If you are a bulk producer in Quebec, You’re compelled to sell to one central agency, the Federation,” explains Isselhardt. “They, through their sheer size, are able to control supply and also the world price, and they’ve chosen to set the price at a value that is sustainable for their producers.
In order to create more stability in the maple market, which can swing sometimes dramatically in price from season to season depending on weather, Quebec producers established the Strategic Maple Reserve in 2000 (the same that saw a $30 million heist of syrup in 2012) to offset shortages and keep the price stable.
“That has probably been one of the biggest reasons for the increased market globally for syrup,” Isselhardt emphasizes, “because large industrial buyers can have some confidence that prices won’t double from year to year.”
The Federation’s quota system, which pays Quebec producers based on a specific quota of production that is tied to the land they sugar, offers one big advantage to Vermont producers. “If you are not a producer in Quebec, you are not beholden to that quota system, so in places like Vermont, where we have a tremendous resource of trees and a great tradition of production, the sky’s the limit in terms of how much you can produce,” explains Isselhardt. “So you see a huge rapid expansion starting in around 2000 taking advantage of that good high price without any of the restrictions on production.”
However, since the price of global maple is set in Canadian dollars, the value to American producers rises and falls with the Canadian dollar. When the Canadian dollar is strong, that’s good for producers here; when it weakens, quite the opposite. Because the past several years have witnessed continuous trouble for the Canadian dollar, maple producers in the U.S., particularly those dealing in bulk, have been looking for new avenues of sales.
“They’re seeing their bulk prices be chipped away by these various forces,” explains Isselhardt, “and it stimulated some of these companies to decide, ‘We’re going to try something else. We’re going to try to do more direct marketing.’ That, I would say, has been the biggest driver of these innovative products like infused syrups and that sort of thing.”
Exit Julia Child, Enter Bobby Flay
As much as you may secretly (or not) hate your friends’ endless close-up shots of brown butter crepes with chanterelles, house Ricotta, braised leeks, and winter squash on Instagram and social media, it’s part of what’s driving Vermont’s maple industry to toy with the preparation and presentation of syrup, according to Matt Gordon, executive director of the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers’ Association.
“The food marketing and the culinary landscape of the United States has undergone a dramatic change in the past 10 to 20 years driven by media, like cooking shows. Look back a couple decades, and you only had Julia Child, and now you see the proliferation of shows that exist. There’s a much different interest in cooking and food. Then you add the Internet and how that has shaped people’s relationships with food. Now people are regularly fixated on food as a hobby, if not obsession, so I think that’s helped open some doors for the maple marketing.”
Eric Sorkin, co-founder of Runamok Maple agrees. “The country’s food sophistication has changed an awful lot in the last 10 years. People are much more dialed into the quality of the food, the provenance of it, and the country’s becoming more adventurous in what they are eating.”
This is paralleled by changes in diet among Americans. Once primarily used to cover pancakes on Sunday breakfast, maple is now getting press for its potential as an organic sweetener that’s semi-wild and single ingredient, has a high mineral content, and requires minimal processing. For health conscious customers not already accustomed to or aware of maple, it makes it all the more attractive.
“People are recognizing that maple does have a health angle to it, especially over other sugars,” explains UVM alumnus Chas Smith, co-founder of Sap!, a carbonated beverage made of (you guessed it) sugar maple sap. So there has been a general trend and uptick across the country in maple awareness that’s cascaded down to new and different products.”
Perhaps no greater proof of this is Smith’s recent appearance, along with co-founder (and cousin) Nikita Salmon on the TV show Shark Tank, in which entrepreneurs pitch business ideas to potential celebrity investors. Although four out of five “sharks” dismissed the duo, Robert Herjavec offered them $600,000 for a 30 percent stake. Salmon and Smith turned him down, but they nonetheless walked away with national name recognition that almost immediately sparked “an explosion in sales,” around two to three thousand percent.
But perhaps no one gave a greater bump nationally to the Vermont maple name than the Grand Oprah herself, who added Runamok’s trio set of bourbon-barrel aged, hibiscus- and cinnamon-vanilla-infused syrups to her annual list of favorite things in 2016. In the three days after the Oprah plug, Runamok Maple made as much in sales as it had in the six months prior.
With a population of only around 600,000 in the State of Vermont, there’s only so many people to sell to, forcing maple producers to look nationally and internationally. Improvements to technology, particularly mobile technology and online retail, as well as distribution networks, are making this all the easier and accessible. And to a tee, all those involved in the industry see tremendous potential for growth.
Thankfully the increased competition has not spawned much bad blood among Vermont producers. “Although there’s a lot of competition on the packer level,” Isselhardt believes, “It seems like there’s a huge amount of willingness to share on the producer level. In general I think people tend to work together more than against each other.”
Sorkin agrees. “My competitors aren’t other pure maple syrup producers, my competitors are corn syrup, Aunt Jemima, and all the other places where people aren’t using maple where they could be.” It’s a sentiment shared by Gordon. “I think within the industry there’s a pretty strong feeling that the enemy isn’t the neighbor selling syrup, it’s still the products that look like syrup, the flavored corn syrup. That’s the real threat to continued growth.”
The Value-Added Vermont Maple Industry
For all the splash of value-added maple products, they are still a tiny percentage of the overall market, much like craft beer to national beers. This fact underlies one of the main debates in the maple industry. Is it better strategy to increase consumption from people who already buy maple and get them to buy more? Or is it better to start from scratch with a new population and train them?
For the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers’ Association, one target is products that suggest maple but don’t actually contain any, like oatmeal, cookies, and granola bars.
For Smith, the value of the value-added maple market is really its potential to turn people on to maple. “The core maple industry, in terms of how it’s made and where it’s coming from it’s still relatively the same. It’s really in the value-added sector where the change is really happening. A lot of that stems from how can we as a company as a community, as a state help grow the maple market by integrating maple into people’s lives in new and different ways.”
Gordon agrees, “Any product that gets the consumer to understand what maple is and think about it in terms of a use other than Sunday morning pancakes is going to be good for the industry.”
Mike Dunphy is the managing editor of The Bridge in Montpelier. This article was originally published in The Bridge.