“There’s a big move globally to make maple something beyond what
you’re pouring over waffles on Sunday mornings,” said Mark Isselhardt,
a maple specialist with the University of Vermont’s Extension Center.
Considering the upper right-hand quadrant of North America is the
only place on Earth where sugar maple trees are native, Vermont is in
perfect position, geographically speaking, to harness the possibilities.
The most conspicuous example of the state’s flourishing maple industry is found a few miles outside of Island Pond, a time-worn little village with a population fewer than 1,000 in the
far northeast corner of the state. Once a timber town, Island Pond has
transformed into a destination for snowmobilers, hunters and second-home owners who come to ride mountain bikes, fish or sit by fires in
their remote cabins.
In 2013, Wood Creek Capital Management, a Connecticut-based
hedge fund that’s part of the $275 billion investment arm of MassMutual
Life Insurance, established Sweet Tree Holdings LLC and went on to set
up its home base in Island Pond. The Vermont maple industry has not
been the same since.
Out of the gate, Sweet Tree turned heads. They spent about $5 million for more than 7,000 acres of forest land in Warren Gore and Averys
Gore north of Island Pond. Not long after, they signed a multidecade
lease on another 9,000 acres. In 2014, they ponied up $700,000 for the
former Ethan Allen furniture manufacturing plant — an 82,000-square-
foot building that had sat vacant for more than a decade.
From the start, Sweet Tree, now doing business as the Maple Guild,
was clear with its intentions to become a dominant force in the global maple industry. Just four years into the process, that goal has been
achieved. “We are the largest maple operation in the world,” said Joe
Russo, chief operating officer of the Maple Guild. “We’ll have 300,000
taps in place for the 2017 season and have right around 60 employees.”
Even at 300,000 taps, the Maple Guild is double the size of Vermont’s
next biggest maple operation. Asked if he still stands by quotes in past
news stories that the company plans to have 750,000 taps in place, Russo
is quick to answer. “Sure, 750,00, at least that. Probably more,” he said
confidently. Fifty workers, broken into teams, began tapping trees in
The Maple Guild facility projects more of a warehouse vibe than
that of a sugarhouse. In a corner of the front office, a wall-mounted
flat-screen TV is tuned to a financial business channel. When news of
an expected hike in oil prices flashed across the screen, Russo stopped
an interview midstream. “Rising energy prices are not good for us,” he
said, slowly shaking his head. During the season, a continuous parade of
tanker trucks delivers boiled-down sap from various collection points to
be further reduced to syrup through four steam-heated evaporators in
Island Pond. A typical spring boiling day will see at least 100 55-gallon
drums of syrup produced at the site.
“It blows my mind walking in there, seeing the scale, the size, the professionalism,” said Matthew Gordon, executive director of the Vermont Maple
Sugar Makers Association. “It doesn’t remind me of grandpa’s sugarhouse.”
(Continued on page 69)
GROWTH PATTERN Sap
lines weave through the
woods at a maple grove.