Business

Warm snap cuts short Vermont maple syrup season

Grades of maple syrup were lined up in a window at Marvin’s sugarhouse in Johnson, Vt., last week.
Ian Thomas Jansen-Lonnquist for The Boston Globe
Grades of maple syrup were lined up in a window at Marvin’s sugarhouse in Johnson, Vt., last week.

FAIRFIELD, Vt. — It was 73 degrees last Monday afternoon, warm air blanketing the rolling fields and maple forests, melting any remaining bits of snow.

In most of New England, the spring weather was a cause for rejoicing. But here, in the heart of Vermont’s maple syrup country, it signaled the end of a sugaring season that had been, well, short and not-so-sweet for producers of the state’s signature crop.

The lingering harsh winter meant sap started running late this spring, and a sudden warm-up signaled a quick end to the sticky season. As a result, Vermont agricultural officials estimate sap yields for maple syrup production could be about half the usual this year.

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“It’s not looking good for a full crop,” said Ric Nye, as he tended a massive vat of cooking sap at J.R. Sloan’s sugarhouse operation. Pushing his baseball cap backward to wipe away the sweat on his forehead, he said, “It’s hard to win when you’re playing with weather.”

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Pancake lovers, however, need not worry about a maple syrup shortage or a jump in prices. In a complicated twist involving global market forces and Canadian maple sugaring dominance, prices are expected to fall. More on that later.

But first, a visit to the country road that links the tiny towns of Fairfield and Fletcher, less than an hour from the Canadian border. The birthplace of the nation’s 21st president, Chester Arthur, the area is better known for producing about half of the 1.3 million pounds of maple syrup that Vermont yields annually.

It remains an idyllic stretch of road that has held tight to its rural character, even as advances in maple-sugaring technology revolutionized the industry to feed global demand. Plastic tubing loops miles of trees, attaching them to vacuum pumps that draw sap to giant tanks, which are then trucked to big sugaring houses.

Sky Tallman brought in a new shipment at Buggernut Mountain Farm in Morrisville.
Ian Thomas Jansen-Lonnquist for The Boston Globe
Sky Tallman brought in a new shipment at Butternut Mountain Farm in Morrisville.

Last year, production in Vermont, the largest US producer of maple syrup, reached a 70-year high, on a par with production around World War II, when sugar rationing spurred sudden demand for maple syrup. Researchers at the University of Vermont expected the technology to boost production even higher this year — until Mother Nature intervened.

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Gently warming spring days and below-freezing nights are the optimal conditions for sap to flow in trees. Tim Perkins, director of the University of Vermont’s Proctor Maple Research Center, said sap flowed in Vermont during just the first two to three weeks of April, about half the normal 30-day season, cutting yields significantly.

“You get what you get,” he said, “but it certainly could have been better.”

Vermont’s production remains only a fraction of that of the world leader in maple syrup, Quebec, which effectively sets global maple syrup prices. In the late 1990s, the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers, which collectively represents 7,400 producers, began fixing prices ahead of the season so its members could stay afloat even in a bad year.

The federation, also known as the OPEC of maple syrup, stores about 5 million pounds of maple syrup to stabilize prices in years when production is poor. This strategic syrup reserve is about four times Vermont’s annual production.

Quebec’s maple syrup producers have another advantage, a weak Canadian dollar that’s trading about 20 percent below the US dollar. That means Canadian syrup sells for less in the United States, and American producers will have to match the prices Canadian suppliers can offer US grocers, said Michael Farrell, director of the Uihlein Forest, Cornell’s Sugar Maple Research & Extension Field Station in Lake Placid, N.Y .

Adam Tasker monitored boiling syrup at Marvin’s.
Ian Thomas Jansen-Lonnquist for The Boston Globe
Adam Tasker monitored boiling syrup at Marvin’s.
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“Prices are going down,” he said. “but it has nothing to do with syrup production.”

Farrell, however, said it is important to remember that the global appetite for maple syrup is growing, and that opportunities abound for producers. For example, demand in Japan and India is up, he said, as more people seek maple syrup as a sweetener with more minerals and nutrients than other sweeteners.

Last Monday, barrels of maple syrup rolled into the warehouse at Butternut Mountain Maple Syrup in Morrisville, Vt., about 50 miles southeast of Fairfield. The company packages and distributes its own maple syrup as well as that of 350 other producers, making it one of the biggest operations of its kind in the state.

Butternut Mountain Farm’s owner, David Marvin, a second- generation maple syrup producer, said that he and his daughter, Emma, find markets for all the syrup producers bring to their doorstep.

The farm’s customers include Williams-Sonoma, the gourmet goods chain, and a major grocery chain they asked not be named.

Normally, at this time of year, the warehouse would have twice as many barrels of maple syrup.

A taster, Ruth Godfrey, grades each barrel from the fanciest and most delicately flavored to “buddy” — syrup that offers a slightly sour aftertaste as maple trees begin to bud.

The Marvins pay producers at the end of the season. Last year, the rate was $2.60 per pound.

Marvin called setting prices for producers — including friends and fellow farmers — an “awesome responsibility” that he does not relish in any year. Soft-spoken, he won’t predict this year’s yields, but he doesn’t sound optimistic.

As for the weak Canadian dollar and a lower-than-average crop, “I just don’t like that,” he said, sitting at a picnic table on the side of Butternut Mountain.

“It’s amazing how many forces come to the woods.”

Megan Woolhouse
can be reached at megan.woolhouse@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @megwoolhouse.