Vt. sugarmakers lead the nation in maple syrup production – again

ADDISON COUNTY — The United States Department of Agriculture’s final tally of maple sugar production is in and Vermont is, once again, the nation’s top producer. 
But even as they mark the Green Mountain State’s preeminence, local sugarmakers reported a strong 2018 season overall despite “wobbly” weather and “splotchy” production.
According to a recent report from the USDA, Vermont produced 1.94 million gallons of maple syrup this year — a slight decline from last year’s total of 1.98 million, but still good for 46.6 percent of the nation’s syrup product.
This season was also notable for its length: sugarmakers produced for an average of 52 days this year, a week longer than in 2017. The state’s earliest reported maple sap flow was Jan. 12, while the latest sap was collected on May 3.
Dave Folino, co-owner of Hillsboro Sugarworks in Starksboro, said he experienced a “very early start,” followed by an unproductive period, and capped off by a strong finish. “It was almost like a doughnut with a big hole in the middle for us,” he said. “It was really good, and then it was nothing for three weeks in the middle, and then it was really good at the end.”
Folino explained that strange weather patterns may be responsible for such extremes in productivity. But, he noted, this season’s weather wasn’t particularly volatile — instead, it was essentially inverted.
“February’s weather was almost like March, then March’s weather was more like February usually is,” he said. “Then April was also way colder than normal. We didn’t get seesaw weather, we just got flip-flopped weather.”
This cold snap reduced maple sap flow in certain areas — something of an irony, given that recent attention has been focused mainly on unseasonable warmth.
“Going into the season, what was on a lot of people’s minds was a concern about abnormally warm temperatures,” said Mark Isselhardt, a maple specialist at UVM Extension. “A spike of temperature sustained over many days without a freeze in the season can usually cause tap holes to lose productivity. But this year it was actually that things were just too cold in certain parts of the state.”
In Addison County, the effects of the cold weather were particularly noticeable at high-elevation sites, and at sites facing north, according to Folino, whose sugarbush stretches up the western slope of the Green Mountains.
“The county production was very splotchy; it was as highly variable within a small area as I can ever remember it,” Folino said. “It could be exceptionally good or exceptionally poor within 10 miles, mostly having to do with how cold it was.”
It’s difficult to separate such unusual patterns from the ongoing threat of climate change, which Folino said has caused increased inconsistency.
“It’s not like a top spinning nice and smoothly, with the weather coming out of the west, and winter being steadily cold,” he said. “It’s more like a top that’s slowing down, and it’s about ready to tip over. We’ve been in wobbly weather.”
Second on the list of potential dangers to the industry is President Trump’s burgeoning trade dispute with Canada. In May, the Canadian government announced a set of new tariffs on imports from the United States, including a 10 percent duty on maple sugar and syrup, in response to Trump’s tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum.
The majority of Canada’s maple imports come from Maine, with only a small amount originating in Vermont. Accordingly, Folino downplayed any immediate threat, but noted that things could change if the dispute grows from a “skirmish” into a true trade war.
“(If) Canada says, ‘Well, the real leverage we have is we’ll just keep our syrup here and charge a tariff for it to enter the U.S.,’ that could have a lot of effect on us,” he said. “Short-term it would be great, because Vermont syrup would become more valuable, and long-term it would be completely disruptive to markets, so it would be a negative. I think it would shrink markets and then things would go crazy.”
Isselhardt raised the same concern, noting the potential cost to consumers.
“If those products cost more, then people will go with a cheaper alternative, which tends to be corn syrup-based, and that would be unfortunate,” he said.
Despite the maple sugaring season’s unpredictability, Isselhardt noted that the product, in the end, seemed as good as ever.
“I try to keep track of reports of problems with syrup quality, and I really haven’t heard hardly any reports of problems — I think that the crop that was made was really good quality,” he said.
“That’s a really positive thing for consumers, and makes it easier for producers,” who can sell their high-quality product for retail as table syrup.
Looking toward 2019, Folino, like other sugarmakers, accepts that some unpredictability is inevitable.
“I want to do everything just like I did this year next year,” Folino said. “We’re always getting ready for last season, but it never happens twice in a row the same.”
And Isselhardt noted that a bit of unpredictable weather doesn’t necessarily prevent a successful sugaring season.
“Sap flow is not a steady process that starts on day one and ends on day 40, or 50, or 60, or however long the season is — it’s made up of a few very discrete sap runs,” Isselhardt said. “Things can be looking pretty bad, and then the weather turns around, and within a very short period of time you can make up for a lot.”

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