By Curt Peterson
Ask any maple syrup farmer – the 2019 maple syrup season was somewhere between “excellent” and “okay.”
Production-wise, syrup farmers say the 2019 season was very good, but not the best ever.
“We didn’t make as much syrup as last year,” Reid Richardson of the Richardson Family Farm in Hartland said, “but 2018 was exceptional.”
Richardson said the industry has had a six-year run of exceptional production. Their farm has been making syrup since 1907.
The weather has been challenging. Maple sap, from which syrup is made, “runs” when days are warm and nights very cold. Last year’s sap began flowing in January, a month earlier than usual. So in 2019 Richardsons got their taps ready for sap in January, but it started much later.
Bob Hausslein of Sugarbob’s Maple Products in Londonderry said runs are becoming less reliable. They access 10,000 taps, producing 3,300 gallons of syrup. The farm added taps every year, so production is difficult to compare, but the per-tap average has remained about the same.
“It seems there is more disruption every year,” Hausslein said. “We get earlier starts, later finishes, and mid-season interruptions.”
Sugarbush Farm in Woodstock has 9,000 taps and has been making syrup for 65 years. Betsy and Larry Luce own the farm and make cheese and 2,500 gallons of syrup. She said the season started late and ended fairly ontime.
“We’re down 10 percent this year, and last year was 27 percent down from 2017,” Luce said. “If we don’t do something about global warming, someday we won’t have any maple syrup.”
Maple syrup is to Vermont what lobsters are to Maine. Totals for 2019 aren’t available yet, but in 2017, the USDA says, Vermont produced 47 percent of total U.S. production – 13.7 million taps made 4.16 million gallons of syrup nationally, at an average retail price of $33 – a $141 million value.
Vermont produced twice as much as New York, the second largest producer, and nine times as much as Maine, the third largest producer.
“Once again Vermont led the nation in making maple syrup,” the USDA website proclaims, “producing nearly 2 million gallons of the sweet product.”
Vermont maple syrup seems ubiquitous, but retail isn’t the only way syrup is distributed.
The Richardsons sell most of their syrup to stores. Sugarbush is a retail store selling syrup and cheeses. You can find the cheese in area stores, but Luce said they sell their maple syrup either at their store or by mail order.
Sugar Bob’s sells very little as traditional syrup. They bubble real wood smoke through the syrup to make “Smoked Maple Syrup” and “savory maple products” such as their Smoked Maple Sriracha Hot Sauce. The sauce won a Specialty Food Association Innovation Award this year and their Smoked Maple Barbecue Sauce won a SOFI in 2016.
Sugar Bob’s headquarters is an office in Rutland City.
“If someone drops in, we’ll sell to them,” Hausslein said. “But we sell almost exclusively wholesale or on-line.”
Sugar Bob’s products are sold at many locations, including the Woodstock Farmer’s Market, Vermont Roots and Truly Unique.
Maple syrup producers love to talk about the “quality” of their syrup, which is graded by color – light to dark. Betsy Luce said 2019 syrup had less of the darker grades. Richardson and Hausslein said the quality was excellent.
“Local people prefer the light syrup,” Luce said. “But people from away, who have been used to Aunt Jemima’s made with corn syrup, sometimes don’t think the real stuff tastes like it should – they prefer the darker syrup, which has a more robust flavor.”