Is maple sugaring
at the dawn of a new era?
By Matt Crawford Photographed by Bear Cieri
Since its inception in 1946, Vermont Life, with consistent regularity, has featured a photograph of maple sugaring on its cover. The first was Spring 1947. The most recent, Spring 2012. A thematic thread of low-tech, homespun simplicity runs through the covers — galvanized buckets, horse-drawn sleds and
sugar-makers clad in wool pants and plaid jackets framed by white
fingers of dirty spring snow clinging to rolling hills in the background.
Viewed collectively, the photos evoke a feeling of folksy, handcrafted,
small-batch craftsmanship that remains a cornerstone of the Vermont
maple industry’s marketing strategy even today.
It’s not well advertised, and arguably, it’s even purposefully
downplayed — these flashbacks to simpler times, for instance, still
adorn the consumer-facing packaging of pure Vermont maple syrup
— but Vermont’s maple sugar industry in the 21st century has evolved
far from the iconic images. While it’s true your bearded Uncle Chuck
might hang a handful of buckets on the maple trees in his backyard
each spring and boil down a few smoky gallons each March, he’s just
a novelty act — a hobby, an excuse to get out of the house at the end
of a dreary winter.
Make no mistake, Vermont maple sugaring is big business. One
economic impact study estimates the annual value of sales in excess
of $300 million and supporting more than 3,000 full-time jobs (for
reference, that’s about the number of jobs Global Foundries reportedly
now has at its Essex Junction facility). Most sugar-makers don’t rely
on horse-drawn sleds to collect sap anymore — the state’s modern-day maple groves are bisected by thousands of miles of high-output
plastic tubing that efficiently deliver sap to a high-tech sugarhouse
outfitted with tens — or even hundreds — of thousands of dollars’
worth of equipment.
And here’s the not-so-secret truth about the maple industry: It’s
booming. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Vermont