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Small-scale maple syrup producers increasing in Vermont as more learn to collect their own sap

Glass bottle of maple syrup laying down; nearby a spoon drizzles maple syrup into a small glass filled with syrup.
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Interest among small-scale maple syrup producers increased during the pandemic. Finding the right mix of weather, tree health and technique can ensure a great tasting maple yield.

Small-scale maple syrup productions ticked up during the pandemic, and plenty of online and in-person resources exist for those who want to start tapping trees next spring.

Even in what is considered a low-yield year, in 2021, the state of Vermont produced over 1.5 million gallons of maple syrup.

That means the state kept its crown as the top producer of maple syrup in the U.S., but many more small-scale operations contributed to this giant sap bucket.

VPR's Mary Engisch spoke with Tim Perkins from the University of Vermont Proctor Maple Research Center about the increase in small-scale maple syrup production and climate change’s potential effects on maple health. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Engisch: It was essentially Indigenous peoples who were first collecting maple syrup — so in this area it would have been Abenaki. What does that look like in terms of equity in the industry with Indigenous peoples?

Tim Perkins: There are several Native American groups around the country in various places, both in the U.S. and Canada, who are engaged in maple production. Either in using the new techniques or sometimes using fairly primitive techniques, depending upon what their interests in it are. Whether they're interested more in education of their heritage, or they're interested in production from a standpoint of producing a product that they can sell and make some revenue from.

This last year, we saw spring temperatures that did not bode well for a lot of maple syrup producers statewide. What sorts of conditions do maple trees need in order for a sap to run?

The best conditions are when the temperatures vary from below freezing to above freezing. Across that critical range, that drives the development of stem pressure in the trees so that when the trees thaw out, sap will be exuded from the tap.

What's the outlook for maple production if we're seeing a predicted rise in temperatures from climate change?

It's very hard to tell from year to year, because we can't forecast exactly what those temperatures are going to be across the season. Over the very long run, as the climate warms, it may pose some challenges to making maple syrup in this area of the world.

It's unlikely to disappear completely. But you know, 100 years from now, there may be less syrup being made in this area.

More from VPR: Saving The Stories of Vermont's Sugarhouses

For folks who are interested in small-scale maple production, it seems like the barrier to entry into that world is kind of low, right? You need some maple trees, obviously, you need some buckets, a heat source. Has there been a surge in small-scale maple production in the state, and if there has, is that a continuing trend that you're noticing?

It really does seem to be a good increase in the number of people who are interested — I think with lots of people having been home this past year. It is a fairly easy project to do, assuming you have good food-grade buckets. You want to make sure what you're collecting — in what you're collecting — is something that food can be in contact with.

And when you collect it, make sure it's in a clean fashion and boil it. It's very simple. And once the temperature gets to the right point, then it's syrup, and you simply need to filter it and enjoy it.

Are there other ways that you can ensure a really high-quality maple syrup product?

Make sure that the sap is processed fairly quickly. Sap is a perishable product, sort of like milk. You don't want to let it sit around for very long. So once it's collected, process it by boiling or by keeping it cold, quickly. And there's a lot of educational material out there on how to do it on a small scale.

And we're happy to answer questions from people as well. But as long as they're doing it that way, then it's a fairly safe and fun activity for families.

I understand too, that you've centered some of your work on the health of maple trees in the state. Can you talk a bit about whether the outlook is good for the state of maple trees in Vermont?

It's all very related — both the yield from trees and the sustainability. And because maple producers want to be able to engage in the same activity for an extended period of time, sometimes, you know, decades — or for families who live on a site for a long period of time, maybe half century or century or more — we want to make sure the trees stay healthy.

So producers are fairly careful most of the time to use recommended practices that will get them good yields, but also will make sure that the tree can remain healthy, grow back enough wood so that the entire process is very sustainable.

Tim Perkins is part of 2021 Maple Conference, offering in-person and online courses through UVM Extension.

For folks interested in learning more about small-scale maple syrup production, try the "Maple: A Sap To Syrup Guide," manual created for career and technical centers in Vermont and this handy guide for beginning sugarmakers from maple specialist George Cook at UVM Extension.

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