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It’s April, the days are finally warmer. But the nights remain cool – perfect weather to make the sap flow. That means maple syrup producers across New England are hard at work making the most of "sugar season."
Harvesting syrup from maple trees is one of the nation’s oldest agricultural traditions. And these days, it’s big business. But the industry remains at the mercy of the elements and global warming making local growers uneasy.
We recently visited Bascom Maple Farms in Alstead, New Hampshire to learn more about the industry.
Our guide was author Doug Whynott, who has written about the farm in his new book, “The Sugar Season: A Year in The Life of Maple Syrup, and One Family’s Quest for the Sweetest Harvest”.
Whynott tells the story of Bruce Bascom, who owns this farm and is one of the largest syrup producers in New England.
“Bruce's operation has about 80,000 taps coming in now," says Whynott. "Some of those include sugar bushes nearby, who just sell their sap to Bruce. Bruce owns 2,400 acres of land, it's amazing. It's a mile and a half wide and three miles long, roughly.
At the farm, there's plastic tubing going from tree, to tree, to tree. In fact, there are miles of tubing.
"When I was here in 2012, it was about 350 miles, but they've added about 10,000 taps since then," says Whynott. "So I'm guessing it's about 450 miles of plastic tubing. The extraordinary thing about all this plastic tubing, it's all under vacuum. It's all at a pressure below atmospheric pressure, which help to draw the sap out of the trees. They have people in the woods, walking along these tubing lines, all the time checking for leaks. So they keep this system with 400 plus miles of tubing air tight, and able to contain a vacuum.
It's quite a change from the old days, when farmers would tap the trees and hang tin buckets on them to collect the sap. Now the taps on thousands of trees are all connected by plastic tubing, which carries the sap back to the farm to be processed. Bascom Farms produces as much as 80,000 gallons of sap a day — which is boiled down and made into syrup, candy or sugar, and then trucked to stores around the region and shipped around world — as far away as Japan and Australia.
"Crystallized maple sugar would be shipped out to bakeries and overseas, and places like that use that product," says Whynott. "There's approximately 250,000 gallons of maple syrup in this warehouse."
The question is, what is 250,000 gallons of maples syrup worth on the market?
"I multiply it by the retail," says Whynott. "What I think is a good retail price, which is $50 per gallon. So, if you multiply 250,000 times $50, you come up with $12.5 million, is that correct? That's a lot of maple syrup."
And a barrel of that maple syrup is worth more than a barrel of oil.
Bruce Bascom is the owner of the farm, which his grandfather started in the 1920s.
"My grandfather primarily had dairy cows," says Bascom. "They raised a lot of potatoes, the maple syrup was a sideline, they did it for about four weeks out of the year and that was it. My father, when I was 13, he had about 80 heads of cow but he was a lot more interested in the maple than the dairy cows. And so what he did was, when I got through high school and went to college, what he did was — working nearly alone — and he was selling hay bales to horse owners mostly, cutting firewood logs and making about 1,000 gallons of syrup a year. So, when I got out of school, I started working for him, in 1972. Plastic tubing was coming in. It was about at the low point in maple. You see, the industry was probably about 10 times larger by 1860, it contracted by 90 percent by 1960. Plastic pipelines started to come in. What revitalized the industry was that, as things changed, labor became more expensive. But the tubing replaced a lot of the labor. Then, eventually, reverse osmosis. It became more fuel and labor efficient."
It took fewer people to run the operation.
"The centennial records for this town in the 1860s, there was about 154 sugar places, they made roughly 230,000 pounds sugar that year, and you do the math. It came out to about 500 trees per farm that people were doing," says Bascom. "You’d have about four people per operation. Now, if you have about two people, you can handle about 25,000 trees."
Bascom says he didn't always know he was going to be in this business, but he knew he wanted to do better than his father.
"There was a lot of peer pressure," says Bascom. "My mother cried for days, and came over to the University of New Hampshire and tried to get me from coming home to work for him. But my four years over there, I went to the Whittemore School of Business and Economics. My father said it would make the trees run on time, so to speak. I almost majored in forestry, so I’ve got a lot of experience in forestry, but I finally decided I’d work for him. And I worked for him for eight years. And then we formed a partnership. He was a pretty strong taskmaster, extreme discipline. Real hard person to work for. We’d get in a lot of fights every day and then we were fine the next day. It just never ended... He was a very smart person. I ended up buying him out in 1990 and he worked here for the next 10 years. I guess his salary was mortgage payments I was making to him. We had a lot of financial problems in the 70s and 80s. It was us against the bank, so to speak. We did better mostly in the early 1990s onward."
"The maple sap flows best when it's freezing at night, warm in the day," says author Doug Whynott. He first came to the woods around Bascom Maple Farms in 2012 to do research for his book. He says a very warm spring that year made it tough season for maple syrup producers.
"Around March 6, 8, 9, it started to get up into the 60s, and then it went up into the 70s," says Whynott. "And then sometime in March 10, 11, 12, it got up into the 80s. And then there were ten days when the temperatures were running between 50s at night and 80s during the day. That had never happened before."
That really wreaks havoc on what's supposed to be happening with the maple sap.
"It flows best when it's freezing at night, warm in the day," says Whynott. "A good temperature range is low-20s to mid- to high-40s, that’s when it really starts to flow. It comes out of the trees as clear liquid with 2 percent sugar, it tastes like a sweetened water, a little bit. But then, the trees kind of shut down or the sap was coming out of the trees, I heard at some sugar houses, like jelly. And David Marvin, who’s a contemporary of Bruce and is a big producer in northern Vermont, said that the sap was going out of their trees like cottage cheese. And they just dumped it on the ground. So the season shut down about that time, right around March 24, 19, 20, in that range. And then it started up again when it got cold again in the first week of April. But after that the syrup was all, what they call "budd-y," it had a taste of the leaf in it, because the trees had started to bud. So that season was just a total, you know, mess for the sugar makers. And it was also an indication of what might happen if predictions about climate change prove true, and warm winters, warm nights, in the winter come to be a more common thing. So it brought up a lot of issues, that March heat wave that year."
This year, maple producers faced another challenge: the start of the season was unusually cold — which can also threatening the harvest.
"It's been too cold though for the days to warm up enough and they're cloudy, so even like today, it's going to be 40 but it won't start running until about 4 or 5 p.m. the way it's going," says Kevin Bascom, Bruce Bascom's cousin.
While Bruce handles the business, Kevin overseas the taps and tubing. He "runs the woods" and, like a good farmer, he pays a lot of attention to the weather.
"God's in control of the weather, he says. "We'll see what happens."
Whynott says the Bascoms — and just about everybody else who makes a living from the maple sugar industry — is nervous about the threat of global warming.
"I read a report that if emissions of greenhouse gas continued, that by the end of this century, the maple syrup industry would be reduced... the climate of New Hampshire could be similar to North Carolina," says Whynott. "One protection against changing weather is this sort of tubing system. They can continue to produce sap and keep the tap holes open and running when they have vacuum systems that aren’t exposed to the air."
Another way the industry protects itself from a bad harvest is with the all powerful federation. Doug Whynott says the Quebec Federation of Maple Producers is to the syrup industry what OPEC is to the oil industry. It sets prices and can even raise and lower supply thanks to its huge "strategic maple syrup reserve."
"Quebec produces 70-80 percent of the world’s maple syrup," says Whynott. "They set the global prices. They’ve established the global strategic reserve. The amount they have in storage now is two years’ of the entire United States' inventory."
It’s partly because of the huge crop they had last year. That’s partly to protect the markets. So, if there’s a bad crop this year, people can buy from them. They established a marketing order in 2002, so all buyers — like Bruce — pay for their syrup through the federation. It’s been good for the industry.
But despite the power of the federation and the advanced technology, this old industry remains steeped in tradition. And, as always, the brief sugar season is still very much subject to the whims of nature.
"It is very fragile, sometimes it's six weeks, sometimes it’s two weeks," says Whynott. "They start making maple syrup in New Jersey in January, they make it in Quebec in April. So they’re dependent on these wild trees when the nights freeze and the days are warm. It’s a very delicate time, this mysterious event happening each year."
People say this is the original American agricultural product.
"This was the first agricultural craft learned from the Native Americans who used to gather sap from the trees," says Whynott. "The settlers learned that from them and improved the technology, so it began in that time."
And these, businesses are all family businesses.
"Even this giant business here is a family business, and from these businesses extend this culture that goes all over America," says Whynott. "Sugar houses are all part of this industry. The really cool thing about it is the flavor of maple originated here. I can’t think of any other flavor that originated here of this magnitude. There’s this $18 billion industry of artificial maple syrup that tries to imitate this flavor. The maple syrup industry is $150 million, they couldn’t replace that market if they tried, but they’re always up against it. Another producer I’ve spoken with has said, let’s try to focus on growing an awareness about maple. He said, we’re not selling a sweetener, we’re selling a flavor. And I think that’s true."
This segment aired on April 10, 2014.
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