Courtesy of Hillsboro Sugarworks
Steve Willsey of Shaker Maple Farm in Addison County tapped his first tree in 1988. For Willsey and many other Vermonters, maple syrup production, or sugarmaking, now represents a primary source of income. Donna Hutchinson (Mt. Pleasant Sugarworks) explained that it was not always like this. “The industry has certainly changed. It has become more of a mainstay, commercial industry and less of a local, family business,” she said.
The maple syrup industry in the U.S. has been growing steadily over the past two decades, according to UVM Extension maple specialist Mark Isselhardt. This iconic industry has always required a certain degree of flexibility because the production season is dependent on many variable weather conditions. However, a UVM study on the adaptability of maple production published in 2016 reports that climate change may require sugarmakers to make substantial changes to their operations in order to remain competitive.
Though images of metal buckets hanging from trees, symbols of historical tapping technique, are often used for marketing purposes, the reality of modern production is very different. A variety of new technological advances, including networks of plastic tubing, reverse osmosis devices, and vacuum pressure pumps, have contributed to the growth and efficiency of sugarmaking. At Solar Sweet Maple Farm in South Lincoln, Vermont, Rhonda and Tom Gadhue maintain around 23,000 taps. When the correct balance of freezing nights and above-freezing days arrives, usually in the spring, maple sap will begin to flow and the Gadhues can begin to tap.
“Our saps come to our sugar house and are pumped into three to four different tanks. Once the tanks are full the sap gets processed through a reverse osmosis machine, which takes the water out and decreases the boiling time,” Rhonda Gadhue said, describing the processing of maple sap. “Then it’s run through a wood fire evaporator and once it reaches a certain temperature, the syrup is ready to be filtered and packaged.” The Gadhues’ sugarhouse is built from reclaimed Vermont barns and powered by solar panels, a testament to their commitment to “preserve the environment, make the best use of [their] land, and foster sustainability”.
Historically, the typical tapping season began on Town Meeting Day, a Vermont holiday on the first Tuesday in March. But Dr. Timothy Perkins, director of the UVM Proctor Maple Research Center, said that technology is allowing the season to begin earlier and run longer. The Gadhues hope to begin this week.
“Usually we start tapping the day after new years but this year it was so cold that to tap would have done damage to the trees,” said Rhonda Gadhue.
Steve Willsey has already begun tapping. “I never would have started so early before,” he said, “but because the tubes are so sterile, the trees won’t start healing over before I’m finished tapping.” Dr. Perkins explains that, at least for now, this improved sanitation and technology is allowing sugarmakers to offset any changes that might arise due to climate change.
In recent years, warmer winters have benefitted production, bringing record crops to Shaker Maple Farm and many other sugarworks in the Northern Kingdom. “I had two record crops the last two winters,” said Willsey. “But long term I have no idea – down the road if it gets too warm that could be problematic because you need the freezes [to tap] as well.”
The expansion of the maple industry in recent years brings more concerns for Willsey and many other sugarmakers: if growth continues and supply starts to outpace demand, prices of syrup could drop in the future. Vermont is the biggest maple producer in the United States, accounting for 42 percent of the country’s production, according to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service. In a report published in 2015, the Center for Rural Studies at UVM put the value of maple production growth at 150 percent, from $19,755,594 in 1992 to $49,432,000, and ranked maple as the fourth most valued agricultural commodity in Vermont. Another Addison County sugarmaker, Dave Folino, who has been in the business since 1979, urges maple producers to focus more on marketing and selling syrup in The Maple News. “So far, maple has been one of the few reliable, steady, profitable sectors of agriculture in Vermont. I fear that could change,” he cautioned. Folino clarifies that he is not arguing against growth, rather for more “balanced growth.”
Extreme weather fluctuations that accompany climate change will pose several problems for maple syrup producers. Folino has noticed more and larger wind storms since 2000 and though warmer temperatures may be beneficial for the moment, the Addison County Independent reports, these trends may make production more difficult in the long run. “My biggest enemy right now is the wind. The storm that came through in November knocked trees down and messed up tubing,” said Willsey. “I don’t know if I’m just more in tune [to weather changes] but I get really nervous now whenever I hear strong winds.”
Despite concerns about climate change and the future economics of the iconic maple industry, sugarmakers in Vermont remain hopeful. “Every year is different,” Hutchinson said. “You adapt in the sugaring industry.”
The technological improvements such as vacuum tubing are an example of the adaptability of researchers and producers to new challenges. “I love being my outside and making a product that everybody likes,” said Willsey.
For many, sugaring represents both a source of livelihood, a community, and a passion. “The community that comes through and visits the farm when we’re boiling is amazing,” Rhonda Ghandue said. “Everybody can feel the excitement of getting what you’ve worked for year round – it’s a great feeling.”