By Rob Roper
For years we have heard that Vermonters must “do something” on climate change in order to, among other things, save our maple sugar industry. This, despite the fact that 2022 saw record production of maple syrup. But could the real existential threat to Vermont maple syrup be very actions taken to prevent climate change?
Representative Brian Smith (R-Derby) touched on this question as the House Energy & Environment Committee marked up S.5, the Clean Heat Standard bill, in anticipation of a vote to send it to the full floor.
While there are multiple ways to boil sap to make syrup, burning oil is the most prevalent, especially among medium and large sized syrup producers. Reliance on cord wood is more prevalent among smaller producers and, one would assume, has the highest greenhouse gas emissions of all the options. Which method is most cost effective is dependent upon the relative prices of oil and wood.
It takes about four gallons of #2 oil to boil enough sap to produce one gallon of maple syrup. There are over 1500 maple sugar producers in Vermont. According to Vermont Business Magazine, in 2022 our state produced 2.55 million gallons of syrup. A study from 2015 by the UVM Center for Rural Studies concluded,
In 2013, the Vermont maple industry contributed between $317 and $330 million in sales to the state of Vermont. The total effect sales multiplier is 1.49 meaning that for every dollar in sales generated by the maple industry another $0.49 circulated in the local economy. Additionally, the Vermont maple industry contributed between $140 and $144 million in value added which in this case mostly includes wages and profits. With a total effect multiplier for value added of 1.69, for every dollar contributed in wages and profits another $0.69 was added to the local economy. Last, the industry contributed between 2,734.93 full time equivalent (FTE) positions and 3,169.23 FTE. If we look at the number of jobs, knowing that one person can have more than one job, the range of jobs supported by the maple industry is between 3,192.1 and 4,519.7. The total effect employment multiplier was 1.25 and for every job in the maple sector another 0.25 was supported in the rest of the local economy.
Apart from the raw economic benefit, maple products play a huge role in defining the Vermont “brand,” so, Rep. Smith’s concern seems well placed. “What effect will this bill have on Vermont’s maple sugar industry as far as these sugar houses that burn fuel oil or propane?” he asked. “Are they going to be able to sustain? That’s a discussion we’re going to have to have at length at some point. It’s going to cost them a lot more money, I believe.”
Representative Laura Sibilia (I-Dover) tried to dismiss Smith’s concerns by pointing to a provision in S.5 that would allow obligated parties to claim “clean heat credits” for extending electricity lines to sugar shacks (among other types of buildings).
Smith didn’t see how this was particularly helpful as either a practical or motivating factor and asked Sibiilia, “How will this help reduce fossil fuel usage when they depend on fossil fuel to generate quantities of maple syrup?”
Sibilia fumbled her attempted answer. “There may be other things in there. Maybe lights. There may be other — who knows?”
Well, maybe find out and know something before you pass the bill!
The estimates are that S.5 will add somewhere between $0.70 and $4.00 to each gallon of oil, propane, natural gas, and kerosene sold in Vermont. That means it will cost Vermont sugar makers somewhere between an extra $2.80 and $16.00 to produce a gallon of syrup, placing them at a serious competitive disadvantage to producers in other states and Canada.
The other alternative would be for sugar makers to find a cheaper form fuel, the most likely being cord wood. This, of course, would be counter productive to the greenhouse gas reduction goals of the Global Warming Solutions Act but our pancakes would still taste good.
Rob Roper is a freelance writer who has been involved with Vermont politics and policy for over 20 years. This article reprinted with permission from Behind the Lines: Rob Roper on Vermont Politics, robertroper.substack.com