When maple tradition and modernity collide in the syrup industry
You wake up on Sunday morning to the smell of pancakes. Or maybe it’s waffles or french toast. The smell grows irresistibly stronger as you make your way downstairs. After anticipating the riches of food, you head to the table. What to put on your feast? Butter? Too boring. Jam? Meh. You reach instead toward a large container. A river of thick liquid flows onto your plate, submerging your breakfast in its amber hue. The first mouthful is an explosion of flavor as the sweetness spreads to your tastebuds. You take another bite and then another, marveling at a taste that is both familiar to you and like nothing else you’ve ever had.
Maple syrup is a tradition in the Northeast region of the United States (and in Quebec) that dates back centuries. It was discovered by the indigenous peoples of North America, who made sugar from the sap of maple trees as early as 1609 — if not earlier — according to the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association. Since then, syrup has become a staple of both the New England and New York economies. But it has also become part of their cultural fabric, as the tradition of boiling sap from maple trees to make syrup has been passed down from generation to generation.
However, since its inception, the way maple syrup is produced has gone through a myriad of changes. And now it appears to be going through yet another evolution. Timothy Perkins, director of the University of Vermont Proctor Maple Research Center, said the maple syrup industry has become increasingly industrialized in recent years. Perkins also said there has been a growth in the average size of syrup producing operations.
“There are some operations that are just tremendously large now and I guess the number of operations that might be defined as industrial is increasing,” he said.
Technological innovations are largely seen as being responsible for the growing number of larger, more industrial operations. Advances like vacuum pumps that remove more sap from the tree, increased sanitation of the tap holes through which sap is extracted, and reverse osmosis systems are among the technologies that have led to the changes in the industry.
And these technological advances, and the resulting industrialization of the industry, have spurred an explosion of syrup production. In the 2016 syrup making season, production in the U.S. was up 23 percent over the previous year to a record 4,207,000 gallons, according to a Food Business News article from June 2016.
Perspectives vary on whether the changes in the syrup industry are beneficial in the long run, with some saying the industrialization is corrupting the spirit of maple syrup production while others point to the positive effects already reaped by the shifts to the industry. Perkins largely focuses on the positives, saying the industrialization of syrup making and the increase in the production of syrup that goes with it means the U.S. doesn’t have to import as much from Canada, the world’s largest syrup producer. He said this will be beneficial for local economies.
However, Perkins did acknowledge there is the potential that the increased, industrial-style production of maple syrup will create a glut on the market, driving down prices and costing producers money, although he said that possibility hasn’t manifested itself yet.
This is the concern of Steven Gorelick, the managing programs director for Local Futures — an organization that advocates for a shift away from globalization and toward localization. Gorelick, a homesteader in Vermont who makes maple syrup, wrote a piece in March 2016 titled “How Capitalism is Changing Vermont’s Maple Syrup Industry for the Worse.” He said in an interview that he’s worried the maple syrup industry is on what he calls ‘the technological treadmill.’”
He said this refers to a trend that has appeared in every part of the agricultural industry in which a new technology is introduced that increases efficiency and production, benefiting the first farmers to invest in the technology. But as more people begin using the advances, prices fall because of overproduction, Gorelick said.
“Initially they may have seen a return, but as everyone embraces it the price goes down and they’re back where they started from,” he said. “Only now, they have a much bigger investment in technology and the only way they can pay for that is with larger production.”
In the end, farmers don’t end up any further ahead than they were before the technological advancements, Gorelick said. And those who don’t invest in the technology are often pushed out of the business by the rising costs, he added.
Michael Farrell, director of Cornell University’s Uihlein Forest, a field station for maple syrup research, has a different perspective. He said the changes to the industry have made syrup production more efficient. Additionally, Farrell said the technological innovations have made maple syrup making more environmentally friendly by reducing the amount of energy needed to convert sap into syrup.
Environmentalism has been on the minds of syrup producers in recent years, as scientific research has pointed out the dire impact climate change could have on the maple industry — which has historically been reliant on certain temperatures that are conducive to sap runs. Farrell said the technological advancements in the industry could help producers work around some of the impacts a changing climate will likely have on syrup production.
“With the vacuum pumps and with the new types of spouts and tubing, we’re able to continue to collect good yields of sap even when the temperatures are unfavorable,” he said. “So technology can ameliorate some of the negatives of climate change.”
Farrell added that even with the industrialization of syrup production and the increased size of sugaring operations that has resulted, the big syrup producers aren’t huge businesses.
“Even what you might consider a mega operation is still a family operation, it’s still a small business,” Farrell said, adding that he doesn’t believe the larger syrup producers are putting small ones out of business.
While it is difficult to find out whether the number of small syrup producers has changed in the last few years, the number of total farms producing syrup went up in New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maine, New York and Vermont between 2007 and 2012, according to the Proctor Maple Research Center.
However, despite the increased production and the upward trend in the number of producers in recent years, as well as Farrell’s assertion that the changes to maple syrup are not hurting small producers, there are concerns that traditional community-based sugaring operations may be adversely affected by the changes to the industry.
Gorelick said he has seen anecdotal evidence that, although the number of total producers increased between 2007 and 2012, some small-scale syrup producers have quit the business for economic reasons. Gorelick said as many syrup producers have scaled up, others have been priced out of the industry.
This takes a toll on small communities. Production of maple syrup has traditionally been a social event, Gorelick said, as neighbors visit each other’s sugarhouses to help out and catch up. But with increased factory-style maple syrup production — such as the giant industrial maple syrup producer Sweet Tree LLC with its 100,000-plus taps in northern Vermont — Gorelick said the community aspect of syrup making is minimized.
“If you did visit, it would not be the same kind of social gathering that you have at a sugarhouse,” he said. “So if that’s lost, you’re losing a big chunk of the cultural fabric that knitted these communities together.”
Additionally, Gorelick said not everyone is able to afford the equipment necessary to keep up with the industrialization of syrup, as some of the technologies are expensive.
However, Stephen Childs, a New York State maple specialist, said it’s important to keep some perspective when discussing the industrialization of the U.S. syrup industry. Childs said that despite the growing number of U.S. syrup operations that are increasing in size, most are still dwarfed by syrup producers in Quebec.
Childs said he doesn’t know of more than one syrup maker in New York that exceeds 100,000 taps.
“That would be a typical operation in Quebec,” he said.
There aren’t a lot of downsides to the technological advancements in the industry and the industrialization that has resulted, Childs said. He said the yield per tap now is much higher than it was in 2005 and those who use the new technology shouldn’t have a problem making a profit.
One producer who’s happy about the new technology is Dan Beasley, owner of SweeTrees Maple Products in Berkshire, New York. Beasley said the technological innovations have made syrup production more efficient by upping the amount of sap that can be extracted from the tree.
“There’s some traditionalists that say there’s only one way to do it,” he said. “And in some ways I think the old ways are pretty neat, but I think the technology has been very positive overall. There’s a lot more syrup available now … Everybody keeps putting taps in every year.”
Not all syrup producers are hopping on the technology train and the industrialization it has spurred though. Doug Bragg, owner of Bragg Farm Sugarhouse and Gift Shop in East Montpelier, Vermont, said he still uses buckets instead of the new technology.
“To me, people sugar because they like to,” he said. “And we certainly get more enjoyment out of buckets and doing it the traditional way than we would having to have a lot of equipment and technology that breaks down and has problems.”
Overall, no matter what one thinks about the industrialization of maple syrup production, it is clear that the industry is going through a dramatic shift. And — as Gorelick fears — that shift has the potential to mirror the changes that have occurred in the agricultural industry as a whole, with small family farms rapidly disappearing and large agricultural behemoths like Monsanto monopolizing the market. Granted, plenty of small maple syrup producers still exist and some, like Bragg, are not going along with the technological trends of the industry. But while the large syrup producers aren’t yet big enough to control the market, there are certainly signs that the syrup industry could be headed in that direction, with large producers like SweeTree steadily increasing in size.
“It’s a trend that you can see in every part of agriculture,” Gorelick said.
In many ways, the industrialization of syrup can also be thought of as a microcosm for the triumphs and pitfalls of globalization. The world’s economic integration has undoubtedly led to technological advances and the ability to produce at a higher and more efficient rate. With that, as seen in the maple syrup industry, has come increased production and monetary gain.
But the advancements of globalization come at a cost, as it’s not clear that small and medium size businesses even benefit in the long run. While it’s true globalization leads to increases in efficiency and technology, those gains may be offset by the costs of the technologies and sinking prices due to overproduction. Additionally, with the ability to increase production at an efficient rate often comes the loss of something else: a way of life, a sense of community and an intimate connection to one’s work. It becomes impersonal — just a means of making a profit rather than an element of a community’s social fabric.
In the context of maple syrup production, it remains to be seen whether the industry will fully embrace the Faustian bargain offered by globalization and industrialization, with all its advantages and disadvantages, or if it will be able to retain some of its quaint charm. For now, the forces of industrialization seem to be winning. And while the industry has benefited in the short-term, the impacts down the road may not be as positive. The only certainty is that the direction the industry will go from here is uncertain — its future as murky as a pancake soaked in maple syrup.
Evan Popp is a third-year journalism major who is still waiting for Buzzsaw’s maple syrup issue. You can contact them at [email protected].