The Forest for the Treesap

Mysteries are brewing in the sugar shack. Changes are coming to New England’s sugar bushes. And the very identity of a product that we’ve been crafting in basically the same way for centuries, could be on the verge of a radical shift. But a shift towards what?

Island Pond, Vermont is a tiny community of a couple hundred people, up near the Canadian border. Like a lot of small, rural, Northern New England towns things are rough there economically. Income is around half of the average for the rest of the state, and for years wages had been falling, and people have been moving away.

But a few years back people started to hear about something through the grapevine. A company had bought a former furniture manufacturing facility and was investing a millions to install miles of new power lines, and buying lots of gleaming, new equipment.

Maple spiles through the years.

Maple spiles through the years.

The company was called Sweet Tree, and it was building was a massive maple sugaring operation. The owner — who was actually a Massachusetts-based life insurance company — was planning to sink tens of millions of dollars into the facility. When finished, it would be 8 times larger than the previous largest maple sugaring operation in the United States: as many as a million tapped trees, draining to the sugarhouse through more than 6,000 miles of tubing.

But when asked what they were making, the managers of the Sweet Tree plant were mum. This was an operation that looked in every way like it was making maple syrup, but they insisted that nothing from their facility would wind up on top of a waffle.

So what on earth is going on in Northern New England’s sugar bushes?

In the Beginning, Maple Syrup Took Forever

The process of making maple syrup is slow. Sap runs on its own time and only when the weather is just right. Native people used to slash maple trees, gather the sap that dribbled out of them in birch baskets, and boil off the water by plopping hot rocks inside, leaving behind the concentrated sugar. Colonial Europeans didn’t alter the process much. Holes drilled into trees filled — drip by drip —  buckets that had to be gathered by hand, hauled back home and boiled for hours or days, until roughly 40 gallons of sap were reduced to one gallon of syrup.

Peak production of maple for the United States was in 1860, though because of opposition to cane sugar made with the labor of enslaved people, at the time most of it was cooked until all of the water evaporated it became actual sugar crystals. But converted to a syrup equivalent, we're talking about something in the neighborhood of 6.4 million gallons, compared to the 4.2 million produced last year. Since most of New England’s forests were gone, probably every accessible maple tree would have been tapped, and the labor involved would have been simply staggering.

For a very long time, this was how all of the nation’s maple was processed: with massive effort and huge expense of time. But for most of the syrup on your table, this is not what its early life looks like anymore.

Inside the Maple Lab

Inside the University of Vermont’s Proctor maple lab are two very large, very shiny, very identical stainless steel evaporators. They’re used for maple syrup experiments.

“So for example, an aliquot of raw sap that has been concentrated to whatever percentage with reverse osmosis, and then the raw sap that was used to generate that concentrate process simultaneously,” says Abby Van Den Berg, director of the lab. (Who, it must be said, may be the smartest person I’ve ever interviewed. Wait, did you already know what an aliquot is? She had to tell me.)

The UVM Proctor Lab's side-by-side experimental evaporators

The UVM Proctor Lab's side-by-side experimental evaporators

These days, the whole process looks totally different. Most of the work of concentrating sap into syrup is now done using reverse osmosis, saving maple meisters a ton of work and about two-thirds of their fuel costs. (And by the way, no — using reverse osmosis did not change the taste of syrup.) Boiling is now often done burning propane or oil, instead of wood.

And the iconic maple syrup buckets? Gone. Now, most sugar bushes are spiderwebs of blue and green plastic which flow downhill to the sugarhouse not only via gravity, but also coaxed along via vacuum pumps. “Practically speaking, the ultimate result of this is that by using vacuum systems, we’ve been able to basically double the amount of sap yield we get from an individual tree,” says Abby.  

American sugar makers began to adopt these innovations in earnest after the new millennium, and since 2001 maple syrup yield per tap has almost doubled.

We’re starting to make maple syrup more efficiently, by god.

All of this innovation means that, at least for now, some of the maple anxiety that you may have heard about isn’t likely to doom your pancakes. Out of a six-week-long sugaring season, over the last 50 years, we’ve lost 3 days on average — or 7 percent — due to climate change, but “the yields per tap have actually been increasing that entire time,” Abby says, “So at least currently technology is really just swamping out any of the effects that the industry is experiencing from climate change.”

Not Your Grandpa’s Sugar Bush

On the side of a hill in Marshfield, Vermont, I’m watching a torrent of maple sap gushing through a vacuum tube on its way to Mike Farrell’s sugar shack. “It’s the same drip drip drip out of the tree, it’s just this system has 8,000 of those drips,” he says.

This isn't even a particularly fancy reverse osmosis set up...

This isn't even a particularly fancy reverse osmosis set up...

Mike is a former academic who left the ivory tower to run a start-up called the Forest Farmers. They’ve invested in all the stuff: the $25,000 vacuum pumps, sensors and smartphone apps to monitor his tap-lines and sap tanks, an app-controlled reverse osmosis machine, and a huge stainless steel evaporator, with more gauges than a submarine, that one person can operate and make 600 gallons of syrup an hour.

“We’re trying to make it as automated, efficient as possible, because where I want the labor — where I want my employees — is out in the woods,” he explains, “That’s where you make your money in sugaring is in the woods, getting more sap out of the trees.”

The money to pay for all of these shiny sap tanks and miles of tubing is coming from two partners, one of whom is a senior advisor at Bain Capital, the firm where Mitt Romney used to work. Operations like his and Sweet Tree in Island Pond are clearly not the same kind of sugaring operations that have been supplying us with syrup for the last 100 years — which were often dairy farmers looking for something to do to make money during mud season.

So, what attracted Wall Street to Northern Vermont’s forests? To answer that question, you need to look north of the border.

“A Union of Enterprises”

Quebec produces most of the world’s maple syrup, and maple production swings big time from year to year, based on the weather. So, back in the eighties, when the weather was good in Quebec, prices would tank. “Suddenly there was a lot of syrup available on the market, and the price was like, sky dropping, it was amazing,” explains Simon Trepanier, the executive director of the Quebec Federation of Maple Producers. “From $3 a pound sometimes it was like under $1 per pound.”

In years like this, bank loans for new equipment dried up, and people would sell their land or go bankrupt. In such an environment, it was very difficult to develop the industry. Which is when the Quebec Maple Federation stepped in.

In 1989, 84 percent of the producers in Quebec voted to coordinate in order to negotiate prices, and build a strategic reserve. Under Quebec’s unique legal system, this vote meant that all bulk maple sales in the province would thenceforth be bound by a new system of quotas, price negotiation, and cooperation. They put a cap on how many trees producers can tap, and established a single seller that all bulk sales had to pass through. Any syrup left over from year-to-year would be put into a strategic reserve. You might have heard of this reserve because back in 2012, a couple of black marketeers stole more than 500,000 gallons of it.

The federation describes itself as “a union of enterprises” but it has also been described as a (totally legal) cartel: an organization intended to prop-up prices. Since the federation limits the number of taps that can be drilled in the province, they are limiting total possible supply, and increasing the price.

Simon categorically rejected this claim, when I interviewed him, saying that the tap quotas don’t limit supply because “depending of mother nature, depending of your efficiency as a producer, you can produce as an example one pound per tap up to six pounds per tap.” Which, fair enough, but let’s be real: if there were more taps, invariably we’d have more supply.

The bottom line is that because Quebec produces most of the world’s syrup and their prices are governed by this system, they exert an immense amount of control on the global price. In the mid 2000s Quebec was producing 80 percent of the world’s maple syrup. To put that in perspective, at the height of its power, OPEC — the dreaded oil cartel — produced 55 percent of the world’s oil.

The Federation also spends a ton of money to increase demand, too. Fees paid by members members are mostly invested in a marketing campaign — much of it aimed at Asia and Europe — that promotes Maple Syrup the same way the “Got Milk” campaign promotes milk. This has helped push demand up by 5 to 10 percent a year.

America the Suckerfish

Thanks to Quebec and its system of price stabilization “producers everywhere had relatively high stable prices for a while,” explains Mike Farrell. But the Americans aren’t subject to the same production controls. “If I want to put in 200,000 taps I can. You can’t do that in Quebec.”

In other words, when they looked behind them, Quebec realized there were some pesky Americans riding their coat-tails, gobbling up all the new demand that their marketing efforts was creating. Since the mid 2000’s Quebec’s share of the maple market has dropped to just over 70 percent.

“If the Quebec producers hadn't invested in that I don't think probably I wouldn't be sitting here talking with you about this,” says Mike, “I don't think the maple industry would have been growing at such a clip and my partners probably wouldn't really have had much interest in it.”

This is the reason that the investment wing of a Massachusetts life insurance company could be convinced to pour scads of money into tapping a million maple trees in Island Pond — the massive factory from the beginning of this story.  It’s a case of people who understand economics recognizing the opportunity to be a free-rider: a suckerfish attached to the side of the massive shark that is the Quebec maple industry.

Maple candies inside the Butternut Mountain facility.

Maple candies inside the Butternut Mountain facility.

I called and emailed Sweet Tree a half dozen times since I started reporting this story, but couldn't get any sort of comment. They’ve given a handful of interviews since opening, but they’ve never divulged which of these new emerging markets, countries, or products their hoping to sell to.

“Money flows where there's opportunity in one of the best opportunities and natural resources in agriculture right now is maple,” says  David Marvin, of Butternut Mountain Maple, a packing house that buys, bottles and resells over 60 percent of Vermont’s maple syrup.

David doesn’t think there’s a maple bubble, per se, but “the money that’s being paid, most of us think, is well above what one would rationally pay for a maple company” he says. “I think a lot of people who are much more connected to markets than I am would say there's also an awful lot of money looking for a home and some of that is not necessarily being deployed rationally.”

Since Sweet Tree and The Forest Farmers both started up, there have been a couple of excellent years for maple production, and even with the Quebec quota system, all of the excess supply can’t help but push prices down, since American packing houses have enough supply to carry them through until fall. Mike told me he’s not sure would have spent as much as he had, given the current low prices.

In other words, this could have been Alan-Greenspan-Style irrational exuberance, but regardless, it’s supercharging the trend of making maple more capital intensive… making it more big business.

Again, a gut check here: capital coming in means more scale, more efficiency, and lower prices. It might even mean higher pay for workers, since there seems to be a serious shortage of knowledgeable maple workers. (Mike told me paying his workers well was a central pillar of his business plan.)

But how far can this take us?

Maple Plantations?

Harvesting maple syrup is a form of agriculture: a forest full of maple doesn’t necessarily just spring into existence all on its own — maple producers cut out trees that they don’t want, and try to encourage more maple trees to grow — this is just something called extensive agriculture. Instead of a mono-culture, where there’s just one thing that’s planted as densely as possible to maximize the efficiency of planting and harvesting, sugar maples are part of a forest and there’s still the whole forest under story that gets to grow alongside the maples. Letting lots of messy nature into your agricultural operation does complicate things: squirrels chew on the tubing, moose stumble their way through the sugar bush, tearing out your taps.

This is just a cost of doing business. But does it have to be?

“This is one of those kind of crazy things that happens from time to time where you make an observation -- you're doing work on something completely different and have a sort of 'Aha!' moment that leads you somewhere else,” says  Abby Van Den Berg with the University of Vermont.

Back in 2013 Abby and a colleague were trying to see how sap was moving through specific parts of maple trees, and so they had chopped a bunch of saplings off at about waist height, and strapped a vacuum tube to the top of them. “And we saw low-and-behold that we were collecting sap in that way. We weren't just collecting moisture we were collecting sap,” she says.

They realized, holy smokes, this could lead to an entirely different way to produce syrup. Why couldn’t you plant a whole field of saplings, six times as many as in a standard forest, and periodically lop the tops off of them to harvest syrup?

“It would be a way to expand maple production for say you know a farmer that's like ‘I've got a couple of acres. Am I going to plant grapevines or am I going to plant maple trees and make maple syrup?’” says Abby.  

No longer would you need a mature forest, you could have a maple plantation.

Abby Van Den Berg and Tim Perkins, her coauthor, and their innovation at the Proctor Maple Research Facility. (Photo courtesy University of Vermont)

Abby Van Den Berg and Tim Perkins, her coauthor, and their innovation at the Proctor Maple Research Facility. (Photo courtesy University of Vermont)

One last gut check here. How would you feel if  instead of coming from a forest, your syrup came from a maple plantation that look like a field of stumps sporting vacuum IVs? Would you still harbor warm and fuzzy feels for the industry if one of the last bastions of extensive agriculture is converted into yet another field crop?

If you answer no to this, you’re not the only one.

“One of the biggest challenges from that is from a marketing perspective,”  says Mike Farrell. Earlier in our discussion Mike had waxed poetic about the feeling he got while standing in his favorite sugar bush. “You wouldn’t get that feeling standing in that field [of maple saplings].”

This is a step that the industry isn’t ready to take yet. UVM announced this innovation with a big splash about 4 years ago, and as of yet nobody has even tried it.

It could be that the image would be too far gone from the nostalgic picture that maple uses to market itself, but it might also just not be possible. Sugar maples are finicky trees. “I know how difficult it is to be able to grow orchards of maple trees and get them up to that size,” says Mike. So, even though Wall Street investment is helping to drive the maple industry towards ever greater economies of scale, we’re probably not on the cusp of seeing matrix-like sugar maple pod farms.

But remember, just because big business is spending tens of millions on mystery maple factories and thousands of miles of tubing, doesn’t mean you have to. “You don't need much to make maple syrup,” says Abby, “You know I talk to people all the time that are like yeah this is my first year I'm going to tap five trees in my yard. I'm you know making it evaporator out of hotel pans. And you know this works at any scale.”

So, if you buy maple syrup at the store, just don’t imagine that sap has ever languished in a bucket on the side of a tree. And if you’ve got maples in the backyard and want to make some the old fashioned way, just don’t run the numbers on how long that syrup took to make.

Outside/In was produced this week by:

Sam Evans-Brown, with help from Hannah McCarthy, Justine Paradis, Taylor Quimby, Nick Capodice, and Jimmy Gutierrez. Erika Janik is our Executive Producer, and Maureen McMurray is the director of dance-off .gif production.

Special thanks this week to Mark Cannella, Pascal Theriault, and Leslie Marx… especially Leslie, whose book the Economics of Collusion inspired a whole digression into the American Potato Cartel that wound up on the cutting room floor.

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Music in this episode by Blue Dot Sessions.

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