Maple syrup has long been a rustic New England tradition. But the multibillion-dollar business of producing and distributing maple syrup is now global and increasingly dependent on technology.
In “The Sugar Season,’’ Douglas Whynott, who teaches writing at Emerson College and lives in Langdon, N.H., offers us a wide-ranging look inside the maple syrup business, from the ground level of small and large New England producers right on up the supply chain to buyers and distributors who package the product for supermarket shelves around the world.
Throughout, Whynott highlights the many recent changes in the industry, especially the transition from the traditional technology of hanging sap buckets to today’s networks of plastic tubing to move sap from tree to sugarhouse, where it’s processed into maple products like syrup, sugar, candy, and more.
Beyond the effects of technology on the business, Whynott also examines how climate change has begun to wreak negative effects on an industry at the mercy of temperature shifts for the production and harvesting of sap.
Despite the many changes facing syrup producers, tradition still matters a great deal, Whynott shows, as the business is one that tends to be passed through families.
Bruce Bascom, a descendant of “several generations of sugarmakers,’’ sits at the center of the narrative as he seeks to move up from the second-tier to become one of the industry’s big players, competing with behemoths like Maple Grove of St. Johnsbury, Vt.
Bascom seeks to grow not only through increasing his volume but through diversifying too, selling equipment to other maple-syrup producers as well as buying syrup, processing it, and packaging it for big retailers. Bascom serves as Whynott’s highly knowledgeable guide through much of the book, which follows the 2012 maple syrup season.
Like all business owners, Bascom must carefully balance risk and reward, gain access to capital, develop strong relationships with customers and suppliers, study the market, and reinvest profits to expand his operation. As Whynott tells it, much of Bascom’s motivation comes from trying to improve on the results of his workaholic father Ken, who ran the Bascom family business in Acworth, N.H., in a more traditional way.
Among Bascom’s many global customers, writes Whynott, is a Japanese importer and University of Vermont alum named Takashi Oshio, whose “most enthusiastic customers were Japanese girls, who ate the sugar like candy out of small plastic bags.” Whynott takes us inside Bascom’s business as he invests in new equipment and buys syrup from producers all over the United States and Canada, then sells it globally.
The obsessions of the maple syrup producers Whynott visits, whether in New England or Canada, are surprisingly similar: the season’s uncertain weather and its impact on the supply of sap, rampant speculation about the market price syrup will fetch, and the ongoing tension between tradition and technological evolution.
Whynott skillfully explains how maple syrup gets made, how vitally important weather is, and how global warming may threaten the industry’s future.
His entree to the discussion involves the high temperatures of 2012, which shortened the maple syrup season and reduced supplies. On March 20, 2012, for example, Burlington, Vt., reached 80 degrees, terrible conditions for maple syrup producers.
While the record high temperatures of that month were unusual, one meteorologist wrote that “global warming increases the odds of heat extremes.’’
Whynott suggests that many see a longer trend, quoting a 2004 Globe story that reports that “[t]he state’s maple syrup producers say they can see the effects of global warming in their backyards: they are tapping their trees about a month earlier than they used to.’’
And the piece goes on to quote a University of New Hampshire climate-change specialist’s dire prediction that “the sugar maple industry is on its way out.’’
The industry clearly faces challenges, but its fate is not likely imminent. Whynott’s engaging book offers a skillful and fascinating peek behind the curtain of one of the region’s oldest and most beloved traditional industries.
Chuck Leddy, a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester, can be reached at email@example.com.