Monday, April 18, 2016

Rise of 'Big Maple' is striking fear into small maple-syrup producers in Vermont

The rise of Big Maple has small producers worried that this could be the beginning of the end of the mom-and-pop maple-syrup businesses. "Sweet Tree Holdings—distant subsidiary of a huge Massachusetts-based insurance company—has turned an abandoned furniture factory" on the outskirts of Island Port, Vt. (Best Places map), "into the nation’s largest maple syrup production facility," Colin Nickerson reports for The Boston Globe. The company has invested tens of millions of dollars in the operation, said chief executive Michael Argyelan, "and is still researching possible products and potential markets—even as its boilers steam full-tilt."

Argyelan says small producers should not be worried. He told Nickerson, "We’re not threatening anyone. We should be good for everyone. We’re expanding maple production, turning timberland into sustainable sugarbush (the term for semi-wild, groomed maple woods). We’ve created jobs. We’re looking to devise new products. We’re natural, we’re organic; we’re non-GMO; we’re kosher and halal.’’

Small producers are not buying that logic, Nickerson writes. Adam Parke, a Christmas-tree grower who also makes syrup from 1,800 trees in Barton, Vt., told Nickerson, “This is a big corporation intruding on a traditional way of life. The Vermont maple syrup business has always been about individual producers—you can put a name and face to most operations. Growth is great. What’s not great is watching a beloved local industry hijacked by suits sitting in a boardroom somewhere." (Globe graphic)
"The transformation in Vermont’s maple sugar industry since the start of the new century has been seismic," Nickerson writes. "What once was an essentially rural sideline—strictly a part-time affair carried out by dairy farmers looking to make extra cash in the slow spring season—is now a fast-expanding, well-financed industry in which the heaviest volumes of syrup are harvested by a fairly small number of full-time operations with tens of thousands of taps. And loan lines to the banks."

Sweet Tree "workers have already tapped 200,000 maples on 26,000 acres of forest purchased or leased in the backlands of Essex Country," Nickerson writes. "More than 6,000 miles of vacuum tubing—enough to stretch from frigid Island Pond to sunny San Diego and back—siphon the sap from tree taps to a reverse osmosis plant, where water content is reduced with high-tech equipment. Next it is transported to the gleaming, state-of-the-art sugar factory for boiling in four mammoth, steam-fired evaporators capable of turning out 2,400 gallons of Grade A per hour. By comparison, the average producer in Vermont has 3,451 taps and makes 1,221 gallons per year—and even the state’s mega-producers run to only about 100,000 taps."

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