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‘Fancy’ that: Proposed changes in maple grading system meet some resistance

VERMONT — Proposed changes to Vermont’s maple syrup grading system are stirring up controversy in the sugaring community.
The changes, which would implement a new set of international grading standards that are consistent across state and national boundaries, are supported by those who feel it will make Vermont syrup more competitive on a bigger world stage. But others say Vermont’s already got the upper hand, and a change in labeling would not help the Vermont brand.
At the moment, the U.S. and Canada, by far the largest maple syrup-producing countries in the world, have different grading standards; and some U.S. states, including Vermont, have their own labeling systems. “Vermont fancy,” for example, is a designation found nowhere else.
Some in the industry, like Henry Marckres of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, say Vermont’s unique maple syrup grading system is confusing to consumers, especially as Vermont maple syrup expands to bigger markets.
“The days of marketing locally are over,” Marckres said.
But in a state where maple syrup production has been a part of the culture and a point of pride for more than two centuries, some are resistant to anything that would put Vermont maple syrup in the same boat as the rest.
“I do not support the change,” said Tom Audet, co-owner of Ledge Haven Farm in Orwell. “Vermont should try to keep its own (grading system) for as long as possible.”
The way most Vermont maple sugar producers market their products, Audet explained, was to position Vermont syrup as “a little bit special.”
Since the Vermont Agency of Agriculture requires Vermont maple syrup to be denser than that of any other state or province, he has a point. The new system has descriptive grades based on color and taste; Vermont would fall into line on that, but would also require syrup to have a specific density.
Under the proposed new standards, which were created over the past two years and recommended by the International Maple Syrup Institute based in Ontario, Canada, the names for each grade of syrup that Vermont sugarmakers sell will change.
Essentially, what today is graded in the Green Mountain State as “Vermont fancy” would instead be called “Grade A Golden Delicate Taste.” The other grades would go from:
•  “Grade A Medium Amber” to “Grade A Amber Rich Taste.”
•  “Grade A Dark Amber” to “Grade A Dark Robust Taste.”
•  “Grade B” or “Commercial Grade” to “Grade A Very Dark Strong Taste.”
Supporters say that Vermont only stands to gain from an international grading system.
“I see it as a very positive thing for the industry,” said Sam Cutting IV, president of Dakin Farm and chairman of the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers’ Association. “Consumers are confused (by current grading differences).”
For example, Cutting said, Vermont Grade B maple syrup has a negative connotation in the minds of consumers, when in fact it is just much stronger in taste and intended less as a table syrup than as a cooking supplement.
Cutting does not believe that Vermont syrup will lose its reputation for quality. For one thing, the state will not change its density requirements.
“We will retain the Vermont cachet because of the higher density standards,” Cutting explained.
The Vermont brand itself will still be a selling point, he said, since it indicates that syrup has been regulated by the state’s Agency of Agriculture, which will still require that each jug meet the standards of the state. Agency representative Marckres said Vermont’s unique syrup density standards would be an asset.
“Vermonters could market the heck out of this,” he said of the density standards.
Additionally, the law has been crafted so that producers could label their syrup with the old nomenclature alongside the new; a producer will be free stick a big “Vermont fancy” label right next to the required small sticker that has an official “Grade A Golden Delicate Taste” grade.
“People are worried they’re losing ‘fancy,’” Marckres explained. “That’s absolutely not the case.”
The proposed changes would also require that each jug of maple syrup be dated and coded, so that it can be recalled if need be. Marckres defended this change.
“In this day and age of food safety concerns, this is something we should be doing anyway,” he said.
Producers should not expect the grading changes to cost them much — they would have to purchase new labels, and those who make custom jugs would need to buy new stencils.
So far, Vermont maple syrup producers have had mixed reactions to the new grading system, Marckres said.
“Vermonters don’t care for change,” he said with a chuckle.
The public will have a chance to respond to the proposed changes, which were developed with the support of the USDA, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, the Governor’s Office and the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers’ Association, in three public meetings across the state next week.
The meetings will be held on Tuesday, Oct. 16, at the Middlebury American Legion Post 27 in Middlebury; Wednesday, Oct. 17, at South Woodstock Fire Station in Woodstock; and Thursday, Oct. 18, at Lamoille Union Tech Center in Hyde Park. All meetings will start promptly at 7 p.m.
After a brief presentation outlining the proposed changes, discussion will be moderated by Lynn Coale, director of the Hannaford Career Center and a member of the Agriculture and Forest Products Development Board.
The USDA has indicated it will adopt the new standards in 2013. Based on the outcome of the public meetings, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture will decide whether to implement the changes here.
Peter Antos-Ketcham of Shaker Hill Sugarhouse in Starksboro is still wrapping his head around the proposed changes.
“My initial reaction was that the names they chose for the new grades are kind of a mouthful,” he said.
Antos-Ketcham said that while he can appreciate where some bigger sugarmakers are coming from, “I’d be concerned about diminishing Vermont’s brand.”
“At this point, I am cautious and want to hear more,” he said. “I want to be assured about the benefit (of the changes).”

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