The good/bad season

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(HOST) The unusual late winter weather this year was good news for Vermont’s ski industry, but not so good for maple sugaring. Commentator Timothy McQuiston weighs in on the final results from these two quintessential Vermont industries and their paradoxical relationship.

(MCQUISTON) Did anyone else catch the coincidence in the seasonal results of two of Vermont’s signature industries this year? Well, now that the figures are all in, it sure looks like the same weather conditions that were a boon for the ski industry contributed to a bust in maple sugaring.

Vermont is by far the top maple producer in the United States. However, the maple industry here in the Green Mountains was down 18 percent this year to 410,000 gallons. Most other maple producing states also suffered. Number Two, Maine, was down nine percent and Number Three, New York, was down 13 percent. Mean- while, other major producers like New Hampshire (down 31 per- cent) and Wisconsin (down 50 percent) were devastated.

Vermont’s total would have been worse, according to state agri- cultural officials, but for technology. It’s hard to believe that the symbol of Vermont, which graces the state quarter, would benefit from high-tech. But even this traditional industry has changed profoundly over the decades. Where there were once horse drawn sleighs hauling tubs into which buckets of sap were emptied, now there are tubes creating a plastic web through the sugar bushes across the hillsides of Vermont.

The state’s sugarers recently have also employed vacuum tubes to suck more sap from the trees. This is not as drastic as it sounds. The technology allows the sugarmakers to pull sap from the trees at a few degrees colder than the optimal temperature for a late- winter sap run. Without that technology, officials said the losses could have been calamitous, upwards of 30 percent worse than 2004.

Ideal sugaring conditions include a long stretch of cold nights and warm days. But days with those perfect conditions were too few as the late winter was generally too cool. Here is where fortune shone on the skiing industry.

Of course the ski industry needs cold conditions to make snow or to let nature do its job, but the ski industry doesn’t want it too cold, which could keep skiers off the slopes, or too warm, which turns the white gold into brown mud. The technology used in making snow is very advanced as the millions of dollars in snowmaking machines the industry has bought in recent years would attest.

Bitter cold conditions or rain are the industry’s worst enemies. For instance, last January featured icy conditions. If there’s no snow in places like Connecticut and New York City, potential visitors won’t get in the mood; if it’s too warm in the southern reaches of the Northeast, folks will turn to spring activities.

But by late in the season, a targeted marketing campaign by the state and the Vermont ski industry lured skiers to the Green Mountains where they found pleasantly wintery conditions and plenty of snow. The result was a season that boasted 4.4 million skier visits – one of the best years over the last decade.

So, conditions were good for skiing, not so good for sugaring. Everyone would be happier if it were snowy and not too cold in December and January, and then warmer in March. But if the weather always cooperated, it wouldn’t be New England, now, would it?

This is Timothy McQuiston.

Timothy McQuiston is editor of Vermont Business Magazine.

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