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Thursday, Aug 18, 2022

VT Maple Syrup Production Rides Out Difficult Season

Vermont is the nation’s leading maple syrup producer, generating almost 2 million gallons annually — nearly half the country’s total crop. An essential feature of the state’s economy and national identity, this staple product may now be in danger as persistent low temperatures and snowfall shorten the sugaring season.

While late February and early March typically mark the start of the season, a pattern of prolonged winters and heavy March snow has delayed initial sap runs, setting many sugar makers back. For some, such as Abby and Trent Roleau of Gateway Farm in Bristol, production could not begin until mid-March — over a two week delay for a season that only lasts 4 to 6 weeks.

These delays can have serious implications for production, as noted by Don Gale, the owner and operator of Twin Maple Sugarworks in Lincoln. With the late start, low temps and continuing snowfall, Gale is producing, each day, less than a third of the maple syrup he produced last season. “It’s just been too cold with too much snow,” he said.

The Addison County Sugar Makers Association (ACSMA), which helps producers with financing, wholesaling and retailing syrup, has yet to reach a definite conclusion on the issue.

“Because the season started later and was shorter than in recent years, the production is a bit off,” explained Barbara Rainville, the Secretary and Treasurer for the ACSMA. With production disrupted, Rainville noted that there may be a subsequent rise in retail prices. However, syrup remains “a global market” and pricing will continue to be influenced by other competitors, such as Maine and Canada.

Although disruptive, these ecological shifts may actually represent a return to the norm for more seasoned sugar makers. Dave Folino of Hillsboro Sugarworks described the clinging winter as feeling “more like the 1970s or some previous era.” 

Rainville, whose family has been sugaring in Lincoln, Vermont for over 80 years, reiterated this feeling, sharing that, “in our family, Grandpa always said sugaring started at town meeting and ended at grandma’s birthday, which is April 10. So this year is more the norm, and the last few years historically have been outliers.”

Even if these extended winters are in fact a return to a previous norm, they still bring trouble. There may be statewide repercussions if these shifts persist, as maple is a key enterprise for Vermont. According to a 2015 study by the Center for Rural Studies at UVM, the Vermont maple industry contributes between $317 and $330 million to the state in annual sales, and adds  $140 to $144 million in value to the economy each year. Additionally, the maple industry contributes heavily to Vermont’s tourist appeal as millions of Americans come to visit each year. From both an economic and cultural perspective, maple syrup is absolutely vital.

Luckily, recent technological advancements in equipment may be able to offset the effects of a shorter season. Ken Hastings of Bread Loaf View Farms was actually able to exceed his goals for this years production despite a slight delay, and he attributes part of this success to advances in equipment. 

“I suspect if we had the same practices as when we started, we would definitely see an impact,” he said. He also notes that the sugar content was “very high this year, resulting in a good crop of high quality sugar.” 

Hastings, who began sugaring in 1985, produces roughly 1000 to 1500 gallons of syrup each year and finished his season on April 7. Located only three miles from Middlebury College, Bread Loaf View Farm is owned and operated by two alumni and often hosts pancake breakfasts, open houses and tours for students.