Thursday, February 25, 2016

Heat up the griddle, maple syrup season is back; N.H. expert cites concerns in the industry

It's beginning to look a lot like maple syrup season. The 2012 Census of Agriculture reported 8,261 maple-producing tree farms in the U.S., 7,139 owned by families or individuals. "While some are operated by farm corporations and other legal entities, in the U.S. it’s most common to find producers who have a hands-on connection to their product," Donna Kallner, a rural northern Wisconsin resident, reports for the Daily Yonder. (Photo: Maple syrup from northern Wisconsin)

"Maple syrup traditionally has been produced on land that’s not particularly well suited to other crops," Kallner writes. "It’s hard to raise corn and soybeans in the stony, sandy soil of northern Wisconsin, or the steep slopes of New England. But we have lots of maple trees. Managing a healthy forest to produce an annual yield has long been part of how farm families make do."

Small producers often use syrup sales to pay land taxes, "so when you patronize a roadside stand selling home-grown syrup, you’re also supporting the local school, fire department, ambulance service, roads, and all the other things funded by property taxes," she writes. It's not a hobby, but most producers should not expect to get rich off producing maple syrup—for about 80 percent of syrup producers, less than 25 percent of total household income comes from farming. Producing maple syrup is hard work, but it's a local food and it's nutritious.

"The higher the concentration of sugar in the sap, the less water that needs to be evaporated to make syrup—which means less boiling time and, for want of a better term, a 'fresher' flavor," she writes. "I’ve had great dark syrup infused with the smoky flavor of the wood fire used under the evaporator, and not-so-great syrups with sour, burnt and other 'off' notes. But in my opinion, nothing beats the flavor of the syrup made next door... Call me sappy, but I prefer my syrup light and sweet and buckets at my feet on a muddy trail through a snowy woods. But you do what you have to to pay the taxes."

Maple producer and journalist Steve Taylor, a former New Hampshire agriculture commissioner and Rural Blog correspondent, says Kallner's story is "a good explainer for the lay audience. Bigger concerns hanging over the industry are the weak Canadian dollar, which is attracting much cheaper syrup from the Quebec cartel into the U.S. wholesale market and has knocked 10-15 percent off the historic highs of a couple of years ago for bulk ('barrel') syrup, plus what some of us fear is over-expansion down here, especially in Vermont where seems like everybody has doubled tap numbers in the past five years and could be heading us onto the path of dairy where there’s too much milk pressing prices downward. We shall see."

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