Area sugarers make sweet deal

By Chris Gish | Community News Service

After a full day of work on March 1, Cory Krieg hopped on the tractor, picked up his sap tank, and prepared to make some syrup. As snow swirled down the sugarhouse cupola, he boiled the season’s first sap until about 11 p.m. “I definitely got it in my blood,” said Krieg, who taps about 300 trees at Maple Flower Farm in Bethel. “I don’t know what it is, but I just really love making the maple syrup. It’s really, really satisfying.”

Talking about the economics of maple for small farmers, though, Krieg was less enthused. “It became really apparent to me that the small farmers are having a really tough time and are going to have an even tougher time surviving,” he said of his experience in the maple industry.

Last November, Krieg founded Maple Farmers to address that economic difficulty.

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“The maple industry is going the way of the rest of the farms,” said Sam Brakeley. “It’s all consolidating into larger and larger farms.”

According to Krieg, the goal of Maple Farmers is to give members a competitive sales outlet while maintaining the small, independent farms that he believes make Vermont special.

“There are people tucked up in the hills all across Vermont that are making maple syrup but may not be in another five years,” Krieg said. “I’m hoping to help them.”

Krieg plans to provide a marketing presence and online store, as well as bottles, labels and boxes for farmers to ship directly from their farm. As a sign of their small farm bona fides, the producers commit to wood firing, tapping once per tree, and not using reverse osmosis or vacuum pumps.

So far Kreig’s partnership includes five White River Valley farms, and he imagines the network could someday help many more small producers.

Joining the consortium

Derrick Wright, with his wife Beverley and son Andrew, have been tapping trees and milking cows for “40-something years,” at Gilead Brook Farm, in Bethel.

“I was trying to figure out how to sell some syrup online because it seems like that’s how people sell it now,” Wright said of his 800-tap operation. “When [Krieg] called, I thought it was a good idea.”

The newest Maple Farmers member, Sam Brakeley of Sharon, joined the group just last week. Starting out with “just a patch of woods” less than a year ago, he timber framed a sugarhouse with the help of friends and family and put in 750 taps by himself.

“I haven’t had a lot of time to think about marketing and selling,” Brakeley said. When friends shared an article about Maple Farmers with him, “I said ‘heck yeah, I should [join],’” Brakeley recalled.

Three more farms round out Maple Farmers membership. Sunnybrook Farm in Sharon taps about 500 trees, and the Howard Family Farm in Braintree, and White Rock Farm in Randolph taps about 1,000 trees. Even as the largest producer in the partnership, White Rock Farm is a far cry from producers like Island Pond’s Maple Guild, which pulls from more than 500,000 taps.

This economic reality is not lost on the Maple Farmers. “The maple industry is going the way of the rest of the farms,” said Brakeley. “It’s all consolidating into larger and larger farms.”

According to University of Vermont professor and maple business researcher Mark Cannella, over the last 20 years improving technologies such as oil-fired boilers, reverse osmosis, and vacuum pumps have dramatically increased production in Vermont.

According to a 2019 Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets report, Vermont farmers produced more syrup in 2018—1.94 million gallons— than those across the entire country combined did just 11 years earlier.

While the median Vermont maple producer has slightly over 1,100 taps, most of the recent growth in production has come from a handful of large farms, according to the report.

These large farms, combined with a system in Canada that produces 71 percent of the world’s maple syrup, keep bulk prices low, making it hard for small farmers to compete.

“There’s a lot of competition now to find the sale,” according to Cannella. Though he had not heard of the Maple Farmers partnership, he said, “I’m definitely not surprised.

“We’ve been trying to encourage people to partner, to think outside the box,” Canella added.

Cannella views a concept such as Maple Farmers as “a value proposition, rather than a tangible product difference.”

Krieg, though, perceives fundamental differences in maple products that come from small, low-tech operations, as opposed to the larger farms.

“High-brix” reverse osmosis systems, which filter out more than half of the water in sap before boiling begins and are often used by large-scale producers, result in syrup that has a “white sugar processed kind of flavor,” said Krieg.

One of Krieg’s fellow sugarmakers was counseled by an equipment dealer not to transition to a high-brix system all at once (brix is a measure of sugar content) because the syrup’s flavor would change so suddenly that he could lose all of his customers.

Packaging, too, can impact the flavor of maple syrup, Kreig noted.

All Maple Farmers syrup will be sold in glass, he said. Though plastic is cheaper, it can let in oxygen and alter the syrup’s flavor and grade.

Looking ahead, Krieg is excited about helping more farmers and growing the Maple Farmers model. This year, Krieg hopes to sell out all the syrup from the six farms.

“It hopefully can be the sort of thing that there’s five farmers now but down the road there could be 50 or 500 spread all across the Northeast.”

Now that sugaring season has arrived, the farmers have more immediate goals.

“I’m looking forward to a little less snow,” he said, so that he and his family don’t have to walk the sugarbush on snowshoes, said Wright.

Brakeley, in his first year as an independent sugarer, has an even simpler pleasure in mind.

“The first draw of syrup is gonna be pretty special,” he said.

The Community News Service is part of the Reporting and Documentary Storytelling Program at the University of Vermont.

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Dvortygirl and Public domain