GLOVER, Vt. — Cold weather meant a slow start to sap season. And when the taps finally began flowing this month, things only got stickier for a fledgling two-man syrup operation here on three steep knolls by Shadow Lake.
Vacuum pumps hurrying the sap along miles of tubing failed. The new high-tech $28,000 reverse osmosis rig clogged on the initial feed of raw sap. Then, an old tractor skittered into the big red tanker truck.
“Otherwise, it’s going great,’’ said Adam Parke, who with business partner Todd Scelza has sunk heart, soul, and nearly a quarter-million dollars — much borrowed from the bank — into the enterprise, called Shadow Lake Maples.
Parke’s cheer was genuine. Across the northland, the maple syrup industry is booming as never before. Production has doubled over the past decade to about 880,000 gallons per year, according to federal figures, thanks to swelling domestic and international demand and technological improvements that have boosted yields.
The sugary elixir has even become the target of organized crime.
A 2012 multimillion dollar heist of syrup in Quebec — the French-speaking Canadian province that produces 75 percent of all maple goodies — has played out like an improbable Hollywood caper. Just last month, some of the sticky swag showed up in New England.
More fearsome than thieves to many sugar makers, however, are forecasts of global warming. The industry depends on a fairly predictable stretch of frigid nights and warm days from late February through March – any prolonged break in that pattern could wreak havoc.
Despite such worries, Parke and Scelza — self-starters in a hard-bitten region called the Northeast Kingdom — are betting big they can turn a sweet dream into success.
“We’ve been talking and plotting for a year or so,’’ said Scelza, 44. “Now we’re finally at the doing part.’’
The two have toiled for months to whip 400 acres of steep, snowbound sugar bush — groomed maple forest — into shape. They’ve drilled 12,000 taps, hung 80 miles of plastic tubing, and man-handled hulking 4,650-gallon sap collection tanks into place.
“It’s a long way from sap drizzling into oldtime pails,’’ Scelza said as he squinted into bright sunlight shafting through stands of graceful 40-year-old sugar maples that — tapped with care — should be gushing pay sap for another 100 years or more. “But it’s the same tradition. Vermonters make syrup. We also make profits where you wouldn’t expect much. Let’s hope we uphold both traditions.’’
It’s a dauntingly rough road leading to smooth syrup.
But stubbornness is first nature to both Scelza — who also runs an excavating business out of Albany, Vt. — and Parke, a seasoned veteran of agriculture who has raised everything from cows to Christmas trees on a high ridge farm in Barton, Vt.
The equipment glitches that accompanied the initial sap flow were briskly sorted out. Spare parts were fetched. Short-circuits were re-circuited. Cursing was kept to a soft minimum.
Forty-eight hours later, the sap was boiling in gleaming oil-fired evaporator pans at Parke’s sugarhouse. Steam billowed so thickly that Parke, Scelza, and helper Ozzie Henchel were invisible to each other while laboring only a few yards apart. The sap, which naturally contains about 2 percent sucrose, was transforming fast into the rich amber 66.9-percent sugar solution famed as Vermont Pure.
They made 445 gallons of syrup the first three days. They are still cooking hard.“I think we’ve got the hang of it,’’ said Parke, 56, eyes droopy with fatigue. He’d slept only in two- or three-hour stretches.
In Vermont, one of every four trees is a maple, mainly sugar maple, which holds the sweetest sap. Those trees, plus a unique climate, are why commercial sugar making is confined to the “syrup belt’’ stretching from Wisconsin to Maine, plus four Canadian provinces.
“It’s only in this swath that sap season runs long enough for a money crop,’’ said Jacques Couture, 62, chairman of the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association.
The past decade has seen banner years and bad ones. Overall, however, the industry — once barely more than a cottage craft — is in expansion mode.
“Maple is the rare sector of [Vermont] agriculture that’s both increasing production and drawing in new blood,’’ said Henry Marckres, state maple specialist for the Vermont Agency of Agriculture. “It’s an all-natural product that suits the tastes of the times.’’
Timothy Perkins,biologist and director of the University of Vermont’s Proctor Maple Research Center, said new technology means that producers can count on a modestly good yield even in so-called bad years, when weather hurts the sap run. “That, coupled with rising demand, means there’s more room for boom, less chance for bust,’’ he said.
Vermont is the undisputed king of maple on this side of the border. But it seems a puny princeling when ranked against Quebec’s imperial sap flow, which in good years yields at least 7.5 million gallons of syrup or more. Quebec’s vast stocked hoards — known as “strategic maple reserves’’ — give it power to control not only the quantity of precious sirop d’erable available to world markets, but also to stabilize prices.
In 2011, a bumper year, Vermont’s production was valued at $39.9 million, according to the US Department of Agriculture. In Quebec, the industry is worth more than $300 million in so-so years.
That holds irresistible allure for bad guys.
Last year, thieves targeted a brick warehouse off the Trans-Canadian Highway northeast of Montreal. Their haul: $18 million worth of syrup.
The 545,000 gallons of swag — packed in baby-blue steel drums, each worth 13 times more than the equivalent in crude oil — was spirited away over weeks or months, say Canadian law enforcement officials. It apparently was an inside job.
The barrels were replaced with identical containers filled with water. The loss was discovered accidentally on July 30 by an auditor. Swarms of Canadian and US investigators were soon hot on the trail.
The probe led to criminal charges against 18 alleged “barrel rollers’’ in Canada. It also led to St. Johnsbury, Vt., where a portion of the booty — equivalent to 12 tanker truckloads — was discovered at Maple Grove Farms, an iconic syrup and maple candy maker whose origins date to 1915. No one at the company has been charged.
In a statement, Maple Grove said it purchased the syrup in good faith with no reason to believe it may have been stolen.
Meanwhile, maple makers in New England — where syrup still possesses a homely aura — are getting used to the notion of their product as an international commodity.
Pauline Couture, who with husband Jacques runs Couture’s Maple Shop in Westfield, Vt., was packing an Internet order the other day for shipment to Kuala Lumpur.
“I can’t tell you if Malaysians eat pancakes, but they sure like our syrup,’’ Couture said. “When we started [in 1972], we were selling to tourists or neighbors down the road. Now it’s to New York and Nebraska, Japan, and Germany.
“The world is getting smaller,” she said. “But maple is getting bigger.’’
Colin Nickerson can be reached at Nickerson.firstname.lastname@example.org