I’m writing this in late January, right about the time that we’re starting the woods work for the coming sugaring season. Ours is a family maple operation that my father and grandfather started in the 1950s, though back then it was mostly a hobby. Today, we run around 3,000 taps, which is sort of big for a hobby but too small for a livelihood. This is how ag works for many in the Northeast: the modern day job supports the anachronistic rural life. Throw a rock in the air and you’ll hit an editor/tree farmer, or a forester/sheep herder, or a millworker with Angus beef for sale.
The beginning of things – like the end of things – is cause to look back and reflect, and so I’m thinking about the old days of our operation when we ran a line of 500 buckets in addition to our inefficient, gravity-powered tubing. Three hundred gallons of syrup in a year was cause to drink Champagne, even though that often equated to just .1-something gallons per tap. Before we had a reverse osmosis machine we’d boil for hours, often taking shifts during heavy runs so we could boil through the night. I don’t know where we got the energy, except to say that everything seemed slower paced, so we had a bigger energy account to pull from. Plus, we were younger.
Today, technology allows us to make around .4 gallons of syrup per tap in a good year, and we can make that syrup in a fraction of the time it used to take. We have one bucket – the rest of the sap is pulled by vacuum through miles of tubing into two off-site collection tanks. There’s still a lot of woods work during the season, as we walk lines every day to check for vacuum leaks. But this physical activity is offset by the hours we spend driving back and forth to collect sap; on heavy runs we feel more like truckers than sugarmakers.
These changes in our operation reflect those taking place throughout the industry. State of the art producers are collecting at least twice as much sap per tree as they used to, and millions of new taps have been added in the last decade. There have been similar liquid gold rushes before, stretching all the way back to when venture capitalist William Cooper and associates created a maple market in 1700s Philadelphia that guaranteed 7 pence a pound, then sold hundreds of iron kettles in Montgomery County, New York, to create a sugarworks that was supposed to rival the West Indian cane sugar plantations. In Cooper’s time, as is the case today, the boom was accompanied by promotional material citing the health benefits of maple sugar, including a statement from physician Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, who wrote: “It has been said that sugar injures the teeth, but this opinion now has so few advocates that it does not deserve a serious refutation.”
What is unprecedented about today’s boom is the scale of some of the new operations. A Northern Woodlands board member, for example, is involved with an enterprise called Sweet Tree in northern Vermont that has gone from zero to 250,000 taps in the last two years. The company has turned the old Ethan Allan Furniture plant in Island Pond into an industrial sugarworks; the whole venture employs 45 full-time workers.
Closer to where I sugar in southwestern Vermont, a group called Crown Maple (established in 2010 by a hedge fund manager) is in the process of building a mega-bush in the town of Sandgate. They’re going to squeeze the sap on site in a bank of ROs, then truck the concentrate to their sugar factory in Duchess County, New York, using 18-wheelers. Their stated goal is 150,000 taps.
These are heady times in the business, and not just for the big producers. We’ve diversified our business model and now sell a portion of the sap we collect to a large operation up the road. Others have clearly sensed the same opportunity. During good runs, we sit in line waiting to pump behind beat-up pickup trucks carrying sloshing 50-gallon drums of sap that were filled from strings of buckets along roadsides. It reminds me of the old days, when you’d see guys driving around with four-foot bolt wood in their one tons, heading over to Cowee Lumber to make $25 a load.
I love this. I love seeing little bootleg operations bringing in cash to poor families, and seeing young men and women taking risks and going all-in on being professional sugarmakers, and seeing venture capital flowing into the working landscape from all over the Northeast.
I’m struck, though, after reading Joe Rankin’s piece on sawmill efficiency in this issue, by the contrast between the giddy, on-its-way-up sugaring industry, and the mature, battle-hardened wood products industry. There was a time, of course, when wood was the fresh-faced up-’n-comer. I’m picturing the owner of one of those old pre-Civil War up-and-down mills going to the bank for a loan on a steam-powered circular mill in the late 1800s, then putting the local logger on notice that he was going to need to buy more oxen. On its surface, Rankin’s piece is a nice little story about recycling, but the subtext is that these super-efficient mills are survivors in a very old industry, and they’ve made it because they’re lean and smart. The loggers who supply them are still around for the same reasons.
Sugarmakers who are interested in playing the long game can glimpse the future by looking peripherally at the forest products industry. As the maple industry grows, regulation is going to grow along with it – something a biomass plant, say, would already know a little something about. The government is going to want to treat a sugarhouse like any other food production facility, and I hope we can help ensure that the coming regulation will be constructed in a way that recognizes that some small family farmers will go out of business if they have to put flush toilets and running water in their sap barns. The packers will eventually require stainless drums and chain of custody documentation and probably some sort of certification on the syrup they buy – some of this change is already in the works. The days when you could pull up to a packing house with galvanized drums or five-gallon plastic totes full of syrup will become quaint memories.
As more syrup gets made, the bulk price will continue to drop and favor economies of scale. The smaller guys are going to have to find a niche to exploit and, like loggers in the last few decades who have had to decide whether to replace their cable skidders with feller bunchers, we’re going to have to try to not take on too much debt to keep up with the Joneses. The bigger players are going to have to innovate – the Henry Ford award will go to the first person who develops an evaporator that runs almost entirely on recycled steam. They’re going to have to figure out a way to hook the world on syrup. And like the sawmills in Rankin’s story, they’re going to have to be more efficient with everything they do. Are there secondary markets for RO water? For raw sap? Low-grade markets for cull wood as you improve your sugarbush?
The planet will continue its long-term warming trend and the weather will fluctuate widely from year to year, as it always has. Technology is and will be a hedge against this. Last year, the sugaring season came late and was considerably shorter than “normal,” whatever that means, but according to a tapping survey conducted by Proctor Maple Research Center, producers who used vacuum pumps still averaged .34 gallons of syrup per tap, while those on gravity averaged .18. The traditional average is .25, so there you have a perfect illustration of the chasm between high-tech and low-tech producers. Those with vacuum shrugged off the weird weather and still made a crop and then some in two weeks; those without it didn’t.
Good forest practices are another way to prepare for weather that many suggest will be more extreme in future years. Healthy trees are more resilient in the face of drought and prolonged wetness; sugarbushes with a non-maple component will have an advantage over monocultures when it comes to surviving defoliating insect outbreaks. Talk to a tree farmer who’s been successful in the wood business over an extended period of time and you’ll probably find that good forest stewardship is one of the foundations of this success. She didn’t cut all the oak when the price was high – she cut what was ready and left the principal to accrue in value. He didn’t just harvest and then forget about the stand until the next harvest – he pruned and released crop trees; he followed up and treated honeysuckle or beech brush; he looked up and saw the tree’s crowns and down at the mycorrhiza in the soil and not just straight ahead at the merchantable stems.
There are differences in managing a stand of maple for sawlogs and for sap production, but in both cases you’re managing a forest ecosystem. The more you help the land out, the more it’s going to help you out. I saw a new sugarbush the other day where the landowner cut every non-maple in a ledgy, thin-soil stand, banged up the boles pulling whole trees out, chipped the cull wood so there’s not a bit of debris left on the forest floor, strung the spindly maples together with saplines and then overtapped them. This is the sugaring version of a highgrading, or a crop farmer who plows a slopped corn field to the river’s edge and fails to notice the topsoil disappearing with each rain storm.
There’s still an anti-intellectual streak in some quarters that reflexively regards land stewardship as a soft, new-agey affront to human industry. It developed alongside the stewardship ethic, so it’s at least as old as George Perkins Marsh, the portly, erudite-looking guy pictured on page 31 of this issue. Now to be fair, some of the hostility exists because it can be obnoxious when high-minded treatises on land use are handed down like commandments from libraries in Florence, Italy (or from offices in Corinth, Vermont), no matter how sensible or well-intentioned. But talk to a successful sawmill owner, or wood manufacturer, or logger/farmer/sugarmaker, and whatever their degree of new-age sensibility, they’ll tell you that over the long haul they make more money by working with nature and not against it. Being green is making them green in the raw, grand tradition of American capitalism.
Food for thought as we all happily bounce up and down on the sugarmaking bubble.