Maple syrup prices reach record highs


Friday, March 13
BENNINGTON -- A down season in 2008, coupled with harsh weather earlier this winter, have conspired to dramatically raise the price of maple syrup.

Now, sugarmakers are tapping more maples than ever this year, hoping to cash in on syrup that is fetching $60 or more per gallon, while closing the gap between supply and a growing demand. But the flow of sap has so far been dilatory, according to local sugarmakers.

Catherine Stevens, with the University of Vermont's Proctor Maple Research Center, said several factors have contributed to the price hike -- up from about $45 per gallon a year ago. One of the biggest factors, she said, was a poor season for sugarmakers in Quebec last year.

Cold temperatures reduced production across the northern border in the past couple of years, where about 75 percent of the world's maple syrup is produced.

"They had a very bad season last year so the supply was way down whereas the demand ... was way up," Stevens said.

Shaftsbury sugarmaker David Mance, who operates the Mance Family Tree Farm, said cold temperatures and snow hurt production closer to home, too. Sugarmakers in the southwest corner of Vermont fared well last year. But the eastern side of the Green Mountains, and much of Maine, were affected by cold and snow, he said.

"We had generally a very good year, but by the time you hit Readsboro and Wilmington ... they had too much snow," Mance said. From Maine to the spine of the Green Mountains, everybody had a below average year. The surplus got used up."

In previous years, prices remained lower because Quebec produced more syrup than it sold, creating a surplus within the industry. But the recent drop in production and the increased worldwide demand for maple syrup have evaporated reserves.

Spikes in the cost of oil and gas have also helped increase costs, Stevens said. As a result, the cost of materials needed to produce maple syrup, such as plastic tubing and stainless steel evaporators, were more expensive for sugarmakers, she said.

A major ice storm in December that damaged many maple trees in Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts and flooding and high winds last summer could make it even tougher for sugarmakers to meet demand.

"There were some sugarbushes that had some major damage," Stevens said.

The higher cost of syrup, for the most part, reflects the cost of production, according to Stevens. Most sugarmakers in Vermont are pricing their syrup based on their labor costs, but there are exceptions, she said.

Mance said he has not had to raise his price as high as others. "We're far from that," he said. He expects his price per gallon to top out around $50 a gallon.

"The price is really not affecting what we do. We sell all of our syrup either wholesale or retail. We act somewhat independent of the bulk price," he said.

One implication of higher prices has been a cutback in use of maple syrup by some restaurants. Some are charging for "the real stuff," while others are simply cutting back portions or replacing pure maple syrup with alternatives.

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Stevens said the "volatile" prices have caused some changes, mostly in smaller, privately owned eateries. Chain restaurants are not typically serviced by individual sugarmakers, and tend to purchase in very large amounts, she said.

On the other hand, "some restaurants might have a small charge for pure syrup. That's been the case in some restaurants for years," she said. A prolonged cutback could have an impact on sugarmakers, she said.

The four- to six-week annual sugaring season has begun as the temperatures begin to fluctuate. Warm daytime temperatures, followed by nighttime dips below freezing are ideal for sugaring, Mance said.

The season is off to a slow start, though, because temperatures have not fallen low enough some nights. "We just need that fluctuation. Ten to 20 degrees to either side of freezing," Mance said.

At this point in the season last year, Mance said he had produced 118 gallons of syrup. This year he has just 54 gallons.

"We're off to a slower start than last year, but last year was a very good year for us," he said. "The next two weeks are critical."

The spike in the cost of maple syrup has motivated sugarmakers to tap more trees this year, and encouraged newcomers to give sugaring a try, Stevens said.

"There's been a lot of growth in the number of taps. People are expanding their sugaring operations, and new people are also getting into sugaring," she said.

Mance said an expansion of sugaring is exactly what is needed.

"I think there is a demand for as much Vermont syrup as can be made. In our case, we would have expanded if I had more time and energy, but I don't," he said. "I'm really a part-time sugarmaker."

Demand can be met and reserves replenished, and hopefully syrup costs lowered, "if everybody has a good year," Mance said.

"We could be right back to where we need to be," Mance said. "One of the beautiful things about syrup is that you can keep it if stored properly."

"With all this expansion, with three or four good years, we would have a large surplus again," he said.

Expectations among sugarmakers remain high for the current sugaring season, Stevens said, despite slow-flowing sap in the early days of the season.

"Mother Nature controls the season, and she hasn't told us yet," Stevens said. "Sugarmakers, like anybody else in the agricultural field, are ever optimistic. You have to be an optimist."


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