Sugar makers review successful season

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(Host) As the sugaring season draws to a close this year, the maple industry says production has increased and plans for more expansion are in the works. That means maple producers are looking for new ways to market their “liquid gold.”

As VPR’s Lynne McCrea reports, what still “sells” is the Vermont name.

(McCrea) Robbie Howrigan of Fairfield fits the image of an “old fashioned” Vermont sugar maker. The sixth-generation farmer still uses horses to get through his dense, hilly sugarbush. And he still hangs metal buckets to collect sap.

(Sound of sap dripping, Howrigan) “We’re still kind of old-fashioned.”

(McCrea) The Howrigan sugar house is vintage too, with its dark walls and small windows that cast a dim light. The sap is boiled using an old wood stove, the fire constantly stoked with heavy logs. Because the Howrigan operation is a supplement to dairy farming, the family’s chosen to keep it small.

That’s in contrast to the Vermont trend, which shows that maple producers are increasing production by 10 to 15 percent, primarily by adding new taps to existing sugarbush operations. Robbie Howrigan has been noticing the change:

(Howrigan) “There are some around who’ve really expanded in last five to 10 years – tenfold almost of what they used to do. And, I don’t know, I have to wonder if there isn’t a limit!”

(McCrea) Advances in technology have fueled the industry’s growth. In Underhill Center, The Proctor Maple Research Center was established by the University of Vermont nearly 60 years ago. Some of the early experiments using tubing were conducted at this field research station.

Dr. Tim Perkins is director of the center. He says one of the biggest advances in the last five years is the ‘small spout.’ It’s resulted in a nearly complete change-over in the industry.

(Perkins) “Turns out that under vacuum conditions especially, you can produce about the same amount of sap from the tree with a smaller spout than with a larger spout. The advantage of that is that you’re making a smaller hole in the tree. And when you do drill a hole in a tree, you’re making a wound. And if can keep the wound smaller, then it’s better for health of the tree. And most of the new installations going in now utilize the small spouts.”

(McCrea) Whether the spout is small or large, the maple industry estimates that at least 150,000 new taps have been added to Vermont maple trees this year. And more sap means more maple syrup.

(Catherine Stevens) “So obviously, the more product you have to sell, the more you need to work on selling it.”

(McCrea) Catherine Stevens is marketing coordinator for the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association. And she’s a ‘first’ – efore now, the maple industry never had a dedicated position to focus on marketing needs. Stevens has just completed a new national market survey, one with some ‘good-news-bad-news’ results:

(Stevens) “We were pleased and delighted to find that when people hear ‘maple syrup’ they think ‘Vermont’ first and foremost. However, there were other names on the list after Vermont, and we’re cognizant that the competition – like for any other product – is growing, and it’s very much growing in the maple industry.”

(McCrea) That competition comes from states like Maine, and far more so from Quebec, which produces millions of gallons of syrup every year, compared to Vermont’s average of 500,000 gallons.

The national survey also confirmed what local marketers have suspected – that the higher price of pure Vermont syrup won’t sell to bottom line conscious, national grocery stores. So marketers are bolstering their efforts to target visitors to the state.

Dakin Farm in Ferrisburgh is one of more than 100 maple producers to take part in the state’s third annual “Open House Weekend,” an event that’s designed to draw people into local sugarhouses.

Sam Cutting is the founder of Dakin Farm, a business that ships maple products throughout the world. The sugar house glows with warm wood and crisp lighting. Sam Cutting sits next to the oil-fired evaporator, and watches as people help themselves to free samples of maple-cured sausage and syrup.

(Cutting) “Our sugarhouse snow parties are our Vermont promotion for the year. So it’s really not a money making proposition. If you take the advertising, and everything that we do for it, if we break even, and make a lot of people happy, and they come back at Christmas time, or bring Aunt Tillie next summer – that’s our payoff.”

(McCrea) It’s payoff, too, for Robbie Howrigan of Fairfield. Most of the syrup he makes will be sold through Dakin Farm and it will be the quality that has given Vermont’s syrup its name. Howrigan says he’s made some of the top-graded Fancy syrup, and a lot of the next grade – the A Medium Amber. Beyond color, Howrigan rates the flavor of this year’s crop as very good.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Lynne McCrea.

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