A Maple Bubble? How the Syrup Market Works, and What It All Might Mean

A Maple Bubble? How the Syrup Market Works, and What It All Might Mean

After the leaves fall in October, the mountains that rise toward the Canadian border north of Jackman, Maine, begin to wear their maple like a fuzzy, gray wool blanket.

Sugar and red maple are abundant here, but the trees grow mostly on high and inaccessible ridges. They’re often scraggly and malformed, with roots like bony fingers clinging to steep slopes and thin, rocky soil – a low-rent district compared to the deep, rich tills of the postcard-perfect Vermont countryside that’s more commonly associated with maple sugaring.

So it might have seemed odd when, in 1999, a successful Quebecois electrical engineer named Claude Rodrigue left his home country and abandoned an otherwise lucrative career with energy giant Hydro-Quebec in order to start a sugar farm in Maine – from scratch.

At the time, syrup markets were poor, prices depressed. So remote was the acreage he chose to lease from a local timberland owner – still off the grid at the dawn of the 21st century – that Rodrigue was forced to invest in 168 electric poles (and seven miles of powerline) to bring electricity across the border from Canada.

“When I came here 15 years ago, there was nobody,” admits Rodrigue, who has the big, weather-worn hands, easy smile, and can-do attitude of the French-Canadian lumbermen from whom he descends. “People said I was crazy.”

Today, Rodrigue’s gamble seems more prophetic than crazy. He and his son, Francoise, now run a 50,000-tap operation that is among the largest in Maine. His cavernous, tin-roofed sugar shack houses a new reverse-osmosis machine for separating the “sweet stuff” from water; a hulking, stainless steel evaporator that glistens like the flank of a shiny new Harley; and three 8,000-gallon storage tanks, each large enough to house a pick-up truck.

And he is no longer alone in the valley. Some 150,000 taps now adorn even the steepest ridges, where a decade ago there were none. Local sugarmakers are collectively planning to add as many as 400,000 taps in the next five years. It’s the same story all across the northeastern United States: the maple syrup industry is booming. Production has doubled in the U.S. in the last five years, and prices are high and stable. Last year wholesale buyers were paying nearly $3 per pound (about $33 per gallon), and there was more syrup produced – nearly 3.25 million gallons – than in any year since 1945.

Optimists see the maple syrup boom as the linchpin in a rural New England revival that includes expanding demand for locally sourced food, timber, forest products like wild mushrooms and fiddleheads, and eco-tourism.

But skeptics – and even a few of the optimists – can’t help but wonder: Will the good times last?

 

Not Always So Sweet

In the early spring of 2000, when the sap first began to flow at Rodrigue’s farm in Maine, quintessential New England weather brought warm, sunny days and bonechilling nights, perfect conditions for sugarmaking. Sap flowed freely and markets were flooded with cheap syrup. “I think [wholesale buyers] paid $1.35 per pound that year,” recalls Rodrigue. “It cost us more than that just to make it.”

The next two years followed suit: big flows, low prices. Rodrigue stuck with it, but things didn’t look good. “We worked hard those years and still didn’t make money.”

In truth, these were familiar problems. Maple syrup production was near the bottom of a wrenching, 150-year slide that had begun shortly before the Civil War. Shrewd American capitalists recognized that it was cheaper and more efficient to source sweeteners for tea and baked goods from neat rows of planted sugarbeets in the American South, or sugarcane in the tropics, than it was to try to tame unruly maple trees in the fickle weather of a New England spring.

Maple sugaring held on, of course, as a quaint, lowtech, rural pastime in places like Vermont and Maine, but for most, a serious business it was not. In the middle of the twentieth century, many operations still looked as they had 100 years before, with tin buckets fed by metal taps, wood-fired boilers, and sometimes even horse-drawn sleighs. Production was labor intensive, and demand small. By 1987, production had bottomed out at a paltry 757,000 gallons, a mere one-tenth of the astonishing 6.6 million gallons produced in 1860.

The development of chemically processed sweeteners was the last straw, and pure maple began to be phased out for these cheaper, easier-to-source alternatives. Most mass-market pancake dressings, including the kind labeled with pretty drawings of snowy mountain scenes and log cabins, came to be made almost entirely of corn syrup.

Committed sugarmakers, meanwhile, were forever caught between two opposing forces: Mother Nature and the marketplace. In a year of abundant sap flow, markets saturated and prices dropped. In a bad year, prices were higher but syrup quantities too low to turn much of a profit. Since maple was not subsidized like corn and most other agricultural commodities, in a bad year, things could get really bad.

“Supply and demand was not working too good,” recalls Rodrigue, who had bought his first farm in Quebec when he was 26 years old. “We couldn’t invest because we never knew when the price might collapse.”

Despite the hardships, Rodrigue forged on. He was learning lessons, tweaking his system, investing in new technology and adding taps. Given the sluggish markets and poor prospects, such devotion didn’t seem to make much business sense. Rodrigue blames his seemingly misguided persistence on an ailment he calls the “fever,” an almost infectious urge to make maple syrup that he believes is inherited.

“In Quebec, we just like to make syrup,” he says simply.

 

French Canada vs. the Free Market

The secret to understanding the revival in the maple syrup industry in the United States – and to predicting its future – lies with a once-obscure group of sugarmakers across the border.

In the late 1990s, the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers, which collectively represents 7,400 syrup producers in the province, had finally had enough of the whiplash dealt by free markets, unscrupulous buyers, and the vagaries of Mother Nature.

With the goal of giving poor rural areas a boost, its members agreed, by majority vote, to begin fixing syrup prices ahead of the season – high enough to ensure producers could keep their heads above water even in a bad year. With so much syrup under its control –upwards of 80 percent of the global supply – the Federation had the power to trump market forces, adjusting the amount of syrup available to buyers and controlling the price. If an American or European supermarket chain wanted to buy syrup, it would have to pay the Federation price, whatever that might be. Almost overnight, the Federation became, in the words of its director and general manager Simon Trépanier, the “OPEC of maple syrup” – a cartel capable of setting global prices. “It helped to stabilize everything,” he says.

It was the type of government meddling that made card-carrying capitalists in the United States cringe and cry, “Socialism!” – and in fact, such collusion would have been illegal south of the border – but the majority of Quebec’s sugarmakers, mostly small, humble farmers in remote, rural areas, were more concerned with their livelihoods than ideology. And besides, the plan worked.

“Right away, producers began to install more and more taps, because they could be sure they would be paid a fair price for what they produced,” explains Trépanier. Quebec’s poultry and dairy markets had long benefited from such protectionist measures, he says, so the transition was easy.

But tinkering with the free market had consequences. After three good years of production in the early 2000s, Quebec sugarmakers, confident in the gift of stable prices, began to invest freely in new technology, more taps, and new farms. Supply leapt so far ahead of demand that syrup began to pile up in sugarshacks across the vast forests of southeastern Quebec. There simply weren’t enough pancakes to absorb it all, and prices were fixed too high to attract new customers.

“That’s when we decided we needed to do something,” says Trépanier.

Rather than lower prices to move the syrup, the Federation dusted off another power granted to it by a 50-year-old Quebec law. It began assigning quotas to existing producers, based on the demand it anticipated the following spring. The system was designed to control the number of taps, rather than the total amount of sap or syrup produced. On a good year, a hard-working sugarmaker was welcome to produce more syrup, but anything above his or her tap quota, would be sent to warehouses for temporary storage – a sort of rainy day fund that the Federation anointed the “global strategic maple syrup reserve.”

Cheats were prosecuted as criminals, and new producers were temporarily shut out of the market – with new quotas rationed by bureaucrats. As part of the deal, sugarmakers with quota were required to pitch in for storage costs – between 20 and 25 cents per pound, which included the warehouse, food-grade barrels, inspection, and pasteurization. Additional fees were levied for marketing and administration. And no sugarmaker would be paid for over-production until the syrup sold. For some producers, that over-production represented their only profit, and now they were being told millions of dollars worth of product would languish in a warehouse indefinitely.

Before the ramifications of this arrangement had time to sink in, Mother Nature struck again, this time with a series of too-warm or too-cold springs that sent production plummeting – a situation that might once have bankrupted the industry. But this time, the federation had options: over the course of the next three years, Quebec sugarmakers elected to sell all of their stockpiled 60 million pounds of syrup, successfully weathering the storm and buffering the province’s producers against economic disaster.

The system, which remains in place today, had successfully passed its first real test.

 

An International Impact

No one was happier with Quebec’s new policies than sugarmakers across the border in the United States.

With prices high and stable – and guaranteed – American producers reaped all the benefits of so-called Canadian socialism but suffered none of the pesky consequences: heavy-handed quotas, tap limits, and draconian enforcement. Syrup began to flow like liquid gold.

“The Federation’s policies have subsidized a major expansion nearly everywhere but Quebec,” explains Mike Farrell, a maple syrup researcher and economist with Cornell University in New York and author of The Sugarmaker’s Companion. “Sure, they’ve done a lot to support their sugarmakers, and there’s no doubt they’ve done great things for the industry, but if I was a sugarmaker in Quebec right now, I might not be so happy.”

Claude Rodrigue, sitting pretty just seven miles south of the Quebec border, is one of the many domestic sugarmakers who have benefited. “It’s a good situation,” says Rodrigue, with characteristic understatement. “If the price hadn’t picked up, I wouldn’t have been able to keep investing and expanding.”

Steep hillsides far up above Rodrigue’s farm, once deemed untappable, suddenly seemed within reach. By this time, Rodrigue’s system was a model of sugarmaking excellence: he’d upgraded to state-of-the-art taps and tubing, electrified his entire operation, and built five pumphouses to serve groves of 10,000 maple trees apiece.

By 2013, he’d expanded to nearly 50,000 taps – far more than he would likely have been allowed in Quebec – yielding upwards of 20,000 gallons of syrup annually, a bounty for which he was well paid at nearly $3 a pound wholesale. “That’s five tractor trailer loads,” he says. “You don’t sell that on a street corner.”

And the stable prices have had another, equally predictable, effect: They’ve attracted a new breed of tech-savvy entrepreneurs who, almost overnight, ushered the industry into the twenty-first century.

New efficiencies now permeate every facet of the process. Vacuum pumps suck sap through high-tech plastic taps and tubing, improving on Mother Nature and doubling or tripling yields. Reverse osmosis machines and industrial strength boilers have replaced good old-fashioned patience and gravity, making it faster than ever to convert sap to syrup. Sugarmakers once happy with a quart per tap now typically produce half-a-gallon. Scale has grown right along with efficiency. Taps counts have increased by five to ten percent per year, and total syrup production has doubled in less than a decade.

Big buyers like Bascom Maple Farms of New Hampshire, one of the three largest in the United States, are awash in syrup – and profit. “Business has never been better,” declares company owner Bruce Bascom. Bascom buys syrup, runs 76,000 taps of his own, and sells syrup-making equipment, sometimes on credit, to be paid in full (often with sap or syrup) when spring arrives. “The industry is expanding this year at about the fastest rate ever. Costs per tap are going down, but with prices so high, almost everyone is profitable,” says Bascom. “The money is percolating down to everyone.”

In rural New England, sugarmakers flush with syrup money have more to spend in local communities. Gas stations, hardware stores, equipment makers, local bars and restaurants, grocery stores, ATV and snowmobile dealers, and dairy farms have all benefited.

 

Forecasting the Future

Farrell’s recent work at Cornell shows there’s plenty more room for expansion. Only 2.5 percent of the tappable sugar and red maples growing in accessible sugarbushes in the United States are actually tapped. Though the figure is higher in some parts of northern New England and New York, it still pales in comparison to the 35 percent utilization rate achieved just across the border in Quebec. In 2013, the U.S. had just 10 million taps, compared to nearly 40 million in Quebec, with American syrup representing a meager 20 percent of world production. “Right now, we’re price-takers, not price makers,” says Farrell. “What we do in the U.S. has very little impact on bulk syrup prices. We’re just too small a part of the industry at the moment.”

But, if recent trends continue, with more trees being tapped, and more sap flowing from each taphole, the United States might someday be able to exert more control over prices – a situation which could turn the market on its head. “Even though Quebec has traditionally produced 80 percent of the syrup, it may not always be that way if trends continue. And if they don’t produce 80 percent of the syrup, then they can’t control prices and supply. The whole situation could unravel,” says Farrell. Will it happen? Farrell says his crystal ball is too foggy to tell. “How will public policy in Quebec affect prices?” he asks. “That’s the elephant in the room.”

Simon Trépanier, the Quebec Federation’s director and spokesperson, is well aware of the weight his words carry. When he speaks, syrup-makers on both sides of the border listen.

“For sure, we are helping others to develop,” says Trépanier, pausing, before carrying on in precise, but accented English. “But the point is, it’s a very fragile situation for producers in the States. We have two times the U.S. production in reserve right now. So if we have another big year and decide to sell that syrup, or part of it, at a much lower price, what will these people in the U.S. do? They won’t be able to sell their syrup. They don’t have anything to protect them from collapsing like we do here.”

But Trépanier concedes the Federation is facing new pressure – from inside and out. A recent, well publicized theft of millions of dollars of syrup from the Federation’s warehouses unleashed a public debate over quotas, warehousing requirements, and fees that brought to light simmering discontent with the Federation’s policies in these areas. And another big production year like 2013 could overwhelm syrup reserves, forcing the Federation’s hand.

“A few years ago, we asked a specialist to calculate how much syrup we needed to have in reserve to ensure there was no market shortage. He told us 40 million pounds. We are now at 60-65, so we are well above the average,” explained Trépanier. “Whenever we are over 40 million pounds, in our meetings, producers say, ‘OK, now we need to start selling. We need the money to produce more syrup.’”

It’s a possibility that makes producers elsewhere antsy. Yankee Farm Credit, the largest agricultural lender in New England, maintains a branch in St. Albans, Vermont, a regional nerve center for maple syrup production. Branch manager Mike Farmer reports that maple syrup now accounts for as much as a quarter of loan volume there. “It’s a statistic that didn’t even used to show up,” he says.

Is he worried that the bubble could eventually burst? “Sure. We’re bankers, so we’re always looking for the bottom to fall out of something,” he says. The potential for disease, like the one currently affecting hemlocks in New England, or even another damaging ice-storm, are at least as worrisome as Quebec’s price-fixing. But he sees plenty of signs of stability, too.

“The ability to make sap consistently and to compensate for what Mother Nature can’t always provide has made a huge difference,” says Farmer. If the price drops sharply, he says the producers that survive will be those – big or small – who built (or inherited) competitive advantages when times were good: state-of-the-art equipment, a cheap grove of abundant, healthy maple, a hard-working staff, or smarter business models.

“It’s the guys who spend all night in the woods making sap that are repaying loans,” says Farmer.

And everyone – Bascom in New Hampshire, Farmer in Vermont, Trépanier in Quebec, Rodrigue in Maine and Farrell in New York – agrees the market is ripe for expansion, with plenty of demand for the coming onslaught of syrup. The meshing of the organic, health and local foods movements – all of which have embraced maple syrup – already is boosting the country’s syrup consumption per capita. Even so, syrup consumption averages a paltry three to four ounces per person each year – little more than a few flapjacks worth, and just one-tenth of historic highs in the 1800s.

“Not only are we seeing this incredible potential for expanding production, but we have just as great a potential to expand consumption,” says Farrell, who studies the economics of syrup production. But he emphasized that producers and buyers both must actively seek out new markets if the industry is to continue to thrive.

“If, as an industry, we did a better job of putting our limited resources towards overall market expansion and promotion, pure maple could take a bigger piece of the sweetener pie, rather than competing over the limited slice we currently have,” he says. “We’d all be better off.”

Bascom, the syrup distributor in New Hampshire, says high prices have made it easy to overlook the importance of investing in new markets. He reports receiving some unusual requests recently from “some of the largest soda companies in the world” – without naming names – interested in perhaps adding maple sap or syrup to the ingredient lists of trendy new health drinks and soft drinks. “If you had normal supply and demand with a free market, the price of a drum of syrup would fall on a big production year and it would sell better at stores. People would be looking for new markets again. But with prices this high, most producers are happy to just sell bulk,” says Bascom.

Back in Maine, Claude Rodrigue agrees. After 14 years spent developing a world-class syrup operation high in the mountains above Jackman, he has learned enough about making syrup so that he’s not panicking about price fluctuations. He admits to a good bit of luck and a boost from his Canadian brethren these past few years – but there’s more to it than that, he says.

“The Federation is important. But to make money, you still have to work hard and make a good crop.”

This article was supported by Northern Woodlands magazine’s Research and Reporting Fund, established by generous donors.

Dave Sherwood reports for Reuters in Maine.

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Discussion
  1. Kerry Hegarty → in United States
    Apr 07, 2014

    This is by far the best article that I have ever read about the maple syrup industry.

  2. Bryan Exley → in Eastern Ontario
    Jan 05, 2015

    That is one of the best explanations on how the Quebec Federation works that I have ever run across.  Nicely written with a balanced view point.  Well done Dave.

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