Boils sap

Henry Woodard of Waterbury boils sap in his family’s sugarhouse this winter.

2020 was a good year for Vermont’s maple sugarmakers.

The best ever, in fact.

Vermont’s maple makers made just over 2.2 million gallons of syrup this year. Annual production in the Green Mountain state had been hovering around 2 million gallons a year for several years, with about 1.9 million gallons produced in 2018 and just over 2 million made last year.

“It was absolutely huge for Vermont statewide,” Mark Isselhardt, the maple specialist for the University of Vermont extension service, said. “A lot of syrup was made.”

This season’s haul represents an 8 percent increase over 2019.

“That doesn’t sound like a lot, until you think about how much syrup Vermont makes,” Isselhardt said. “It’s a pretty big change.”

Maple syrup production in Vermont accounted for over half of the maple syrup produced in the country this year; total production in the U.S. this year was 4.4 million gallons. New York was second with about 800,000 gallons while Maine poured into third with 590,000 gallons.

“Vermont’s held the top position for a long time,” Isselhardt said, but “this year is the first time we hit 50 percent of the crop.”

More taps, in part, led to the state’s increased production, Isselhardt said. For 2020 state officials believe there were around 6.15 million taps in Vermont. That’s up from 6 million in 2019 and 5.7 million in 2018.

The weather also cooperated this year to make 2020 one for the record books.

“It wasn’t too warm early, and it didn’t get too hot too fast, later in the season,” Isselhardt said. Many producers started making syrup in February and wrapped up in early or mid April. In between those points, temperatures stayed just right in March. Over the last few years temperatures were cool in March, then spiked in April.

If it gets too hot in April “that tends to plug things up a bit, and the sap quality can go down,” Isselhardt said.

“If the weather hadn’t cooperated, production would have been more like last year or the year before,” he said.

Some producers said the crop’s sweetness dipped this year, but Isselhardt said the lower sweetness didn’t seem to affect the amount of syrup made or its quality.

“The quality was good, there were not a lot of reports of off-flavored syrup,” he added.

Best in the cold pockets

Overall, sugarmakers in traditionally colder areas did better this year.

“Upper elevations, a little colder, north facing, did a little better,” Isselhardt said.

Producers in Chittenden County, which is known for its warmer temperatures, still managed to have success depending on where they are located.

“If you have something that is warmer than average, you probably didn’t do as well as last year,” Isselhardt said, although 2019 was a banner year for producers with warmer sugarbushes. Producers located closer to Lake Champlain may have seen down seasons in 2020 but a majority of Chittenden County sugarbushes are in colder regions like Huntington, Hinesburg, Richmond and Underhill, and things stay pretty chilly in those foothills and mountains.

“I’d say Chittenden County did well,” Isselhardt said.

As can be expected in an industry that is so dependent on the weather, producers in southern Vermont typically start making syrup earlier and end the season sooner.

Producers in the southern end of Lamoille County, or those with warmer sugarbushes, saw their season end earlier than those on the northern end of the county or in colder pockets.

“There’s quite a range, even in Lamoille County, of when people are done,” Isselhardt said.

People are making maple all over Vermont, Isselhardt said, but Franklin County is the top dog in terms of total production.

“There’s no comparison. There’s so much more utilization there, estimates are that they tap about 50 percent of the usable trees in Franklin County,” he said. In 2017, there were 2.1 million taps in Franklin County, far and away the most in the state. Lamoille, Essex, Orleans and Chittenden Counties are the other counties with the most taps in Vermont, and all five counties have seen continued growth in recent years.

“They’ve all gone up, just not evenly,” Isselhardt said. In 2012, for example, there were just under 600,000 taps in Lamoille County. By 2017 there were 637,401 taps; Essex County had 514,520 taps that year, Orleans had 431,239 and Chittenden had 378,646.

Maple is big business

Vermont may be the leading producer of maple syrup in the United States but on a worldwide scale it comes in second to Quebec, where producers made roughly 16 million gallons of syrup in 2020.

“They had a huge year as well,” Isselhardt said. The major reason Quebec makes so much more syrup than Vermont is the number of people in the game, he said. There are an estimated 3,000 maple sugarmakers in Vermont right now; in Quebec, there are 13,000.

With Canada making so much of the world’s syrup — in total it accounts for about 70 percent of everything produced, Isselhardt said — the price paid to producers is set by Quebec every year.

Individual producers in Vermont can set their own price when selling by the gallon or smaller container; right now a gallon of Vermont maple syrup ranges between $40 and $50. But the bulk price — what wholesalers pay producers — is roughly $2 per pound, although that can vary a bit.

“Compared to most years, the price is a little bit down,” Isselhardt said. One factor for that is the current relative weakness of the Canadian dollar. When the value of the Canadian dollar falls it hurts producers in the U.S. because Quebec sets that price for bulk syrup.

Despite that, maple is still big business. With 11.3 pounds of syrup in every gallon, a producer received roughly $900 for a 40-gallon drum.

2020 figures aren’t available yet, but the UVM extension estimates that in 2019 syrup produced in Vermont totaled $58 million.

The International Maple Syrup Institute, said Isselhardt, thinks the industry should enjoy continued growth. “The group is pretty bullish; maple continues to sell.”

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