March in Maine brings longer days, rising temperatures and soon, a delightfully sweet aroma wafting across the countryside. Lines and taps are appearing in backyards and fields to collect what some call liquid gold. Sugarhouses and commercial operators across the state are gearing up for maple syrup season and its signature event, Maine Maple Sunday™. Mark those calendars for March 23rd!
Maple syrup is produced exclusively by the concentration of sap from the maple tree. Once sap is collected, it goes to the sugarhouse where it is boiled down, processed and bottled within hours.
In 2013, Maine was the nation’s third largest producer of maple syrup with 450,000 gallons according the US Department of Agriculture. Second was New York with 574,000 gallons and the undisputed king of the maples is Vermont with 1.3 million gallons.
“Maple syrup processing is one of the fastest-growing agriculture commodities in the state,” remarked Lyle Merrifield, president of the Maine Maple Producers Association. Lyle noted that while the cold temperatures are delaying first taps, historically speaking we’re not that far off from start dates.
Economic Impact – $49 million and counting
The maple syrup industry‘s contribution to Maine’s economy is $49 million dollars, according to a new study released March 5th by the University of Maine in partnership with the MMPA and Department of Agriculture. It includes the financial impact the maple syrup industry has in the state, including tourism, the number of jobs created and sale of equipment used in processing sap. “This study shows a more complete picture of the industry,” said Kathy.
Savvy consumers are demanding this pure, sugary delight that contains no added sugar, coloring agents, artificial flavorings, or preservatives. “Packed with minerals and antioxidants, maple syrup is seen as a healthy alternative to refined sugar,” said Kathy, extension educator with the University of Maine’s Cooperative Extension. Kathy explained that consumers want to purchase maple syrup that is produced locally, is somewhat healthier than other sweeteners and support local farmers in the process. It’s not just for pancakes anymore, either. Maple syrup is showing up as an ingredient in many baking recipes and in new taste combinations such as the “Maple Pepper Brand Seasoning” produced by Highland Foods in Newcastle.
An emerging trend is how manufacturers are adapting equipment to meet the needs of small producers. From reverse osmosis systems to vacuum pumps, new technology enables start-ups to succeed. “Given that small processors can see a return on their investment and time rather quickly, it’s a good hobby or side business to undertake,” said Lyle.
The spike in licensed processers clearly demonstrates that the public appreciates maple syrup. In 2011 there were 349 licensed maple syrup processors and today there are 452. At MMPA, Lyle has seen membership rise from 108 to 185 sugarhouses over the past five years.
Somerset County is home to more than 40 commercial operations; some are very large with 75,000 to 100,000 taps; the average operation runs 25,000 taps. These processors sell syrup in bulk with roughly 90 percent of their product shipped out of state because that’s where the market for large contracts is. “Currently we’re tapping 1.7 million trees,” said Eric Ellis of Maine Maple Products. “With more than 40 million maple trees in Maine, the maple syrup industry is poised for tremendous growth.”
International Grading System
Selling syrup across state and border lines can be a sticky situation when it comes to identifying grades. Currently, Vermont’s top grade of syrup is Fancy, Maine’s is Light Amber, and Canada’s is Number One. The International Maple Syrup Institute is the driving force behind creating standardized grades of syrup.
The new system – a decade in the planning and a year or two away from implementation – will use four names, Golden, Amber, Dark and Very Dark. Groups like the MMPA and MMP are looking for this solution to create consistency across international retail and wholesale markets.
Sugar houses can still be a part of Maine Maple Sunday™
Contact Jessica Nixon, Promotions Coordinator
Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation & Forestry mainemaplesyrup
Mark your calendars for Sunday, March 23rd to check out a list of sugarhouses near you.
See you there!
31st Annual Maine Maple Sunday™
Maine Maple Producers Association
Maine Maple Products
University of Maine Cooperative Extension