Sugarhouses reporting a good season

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PUTNEY — Peter Cooper-Ellis says the 2020 maple season will likely end next week with a full crop of the state's signature sweet product.

Cooper-Ellis and his brother Fraser run companion maple companies, CE Maple of Westminster West and Hidden Springs Maple of PutneyHe said their 30,000 taps in Westminster West are on track to produce about 10,000 gallons of syrup - a full crop.

"The end is in sight," he said late this week.

And Cooper-Ellis said that in his talks with other Vermont sugarmakers, particularly in the southern part of the state, they too are looking at a good year.

If there was one disappointment - aside from the complications posed by the novel coronavirus pandemic - it was that the maple sap was not that sweet this year, a factor that he blames on climate change, which he said affects southern Vermont sugarmakers more than their northern counterparts.

"The sap was not terribly sweet, about 1 percent," he said, noting that the lack of consistent snow cover added to the stress on the maple trees.

Sugarmakers started their season in mid-February, although Cooper-Ellis said there was an earlier run of sweet sap that they weren't ready to capture.

He said his brother Fraser does the boiling at their CE Maple sugarhouse in Westminster West. "He goes there and stays there for the entire season," Peter said of his brother.

The Cooper-Ellis family has been making maple syrup for 50 years, starting at their home in Putney, he said.

Ten years ago, Peter Cooper-Ellis started Hidden Springs Maple, a retail and wholesale business, and buys syrup from about a dozen smaller sugarmakers in Vermont and sells it at the store (now closed because of COVID-19) or sells to the likes of Internet giant Amazon, the company's biggest customer.

Gary Rapanotti of Chester has a big 4,400-tap sugarbush on Parker Hill Road in Rockingham, and he echoed Cooper-Ellis' assessment of the season. He said he was closing in on a full crop, and he also noted that the sap was not as sweet as in years past. He said he had one early run with a sugar content in the 1.8 percent range, and then it dropped, meaning more sap must go in to making a gallon of syrup. At 1 percent, he said, it takes 85 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup. With sap in the 1.8 to 2 percent range, the ratio is 50 gallons to one gallon of syrup, he said.

Rapanotti and Cooper-Ellis both said climate change - not the coronavirus - was the biggest threat to Vermont sugarmaking.

Cooper-Ellis said southern Vermont is that much more affected by the extreme swings in weather, putting the sugar maples under a lot of stress. He said he had read numerous articles about the issue, but he admitted it wasn't proven science - just yet.

On the plus side, more and more sugarmakers are certified organic producers, which increases the price they get for their syrup by 15 cents a pound.

Rapanotti, who makes about 5,500 gallons a year from two big sugarbushes, sells about 300 gallons from his sugarhouse but sells most of his syrup in bulk to Bascom's, a large maple operation in Acworth, N.H., and both Rapanotti and Cooper-Ellis said they were told by Bascom's that demand for maple syrup is continuing to grow - at about 5 percent a year.

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The season started on Feb. 22 for Rapanotti, who has a high tech operation that he can control and monitor on his cell phone.

The biggest sugarmakers in the state are in northern Vermont, Cooper-Ellis noted, those than have 300,000 taps (more than 10 times what he and his brother have), and they routinely draw sap with a sugar content much higher than southern Vermont sees.

The state's biggest maple weekend, the Maple Open House Weekend, which would have been held last weekend, was cancelled. Both men said they had limited the public access to their sugarhouses, and Cooper-Ellis said he closed his retail business weeks ahead of Gov. Phil Scott's directive to non-essential businesses to close.

In West Brattleboro, the Robb family, longtime sugarmakers, said they had been very busy making syrup, and that it appeared people were buying more.

"The past two weeks have been the busiest we've ever had with no event going on. This week, though, has been busy, but with a different feel. We've sold a lot of syrup, but from the quantity people have bought, I'm thinking people are stocking up," said the family matriarch, Helen Robb.

"As far as how we are adapting to the pandemic, we're using all of the sanitary measures we've used right along. We do tell people they're getting a warm smile from us instead of a handshake or hug. Social distancing is being practiced. We have sterile wipes and are wiping down high traffic areas as well as door knobs, etc. People are still stopping by and we welcome them," Robb said. "We are trying to use good common sense measures," she said.

Allison Hope, executive director for the Vermont Sugarmakers Association, said Vermont produced 2.1 million gallons in 2019, by far the largest state - with total production at 4.24 million gallons.

But Vermont and any other state is dwarfed by the large production just north in the province of Quebec, Canada, which makes about 80 percent of the world's syrup.

Hope said that in 2019 about 40,000 people visited Vermont sugarhouses on the Maple Weekend, and she said state agriculture officials were working on alternative marketing strategies.

"While many of us are home right now, it's a great time to join Vermont Maple on Facebook for our weekly activity contests, video sharing and more! Educational, entertaining and a great way to win a home delivery of a Vermont Maple Resiliency Care Package.

"We're working with Vermont's Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, and other statewide maple associations, to create a fall maple celebration for Vermonters and tourists from near and far," Hope said."When we have more specifics, we'll share them broadly so people can plan, once again, to visit Vermont's sugar makers to learn, taste and explore," she said.

"I've heard from packers that orders are up, but haven't heard from sugar makers that online orders are higher than usual yet. We're hopeful that we can direct consumers that way and ensure they understand it's a good season for maple, even if they can't come visit sugar houses in person right now," she said.

"Vermont's sugarmakers are getting creative beyond online stores (which many of them have already)," she said.

"Many Vermonters are used to getting their pure Vermont maple syrup right from the sugar house, so we want to make sure folks know we have it covered with curbside, delivery and mailing," she said.

More information on Vermont Maple online at www.vermontmaple.org


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