Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Maine maple syrup myth

Today was Maine Maple Sunday, a simultaneous open house at all of the family-run maple syrup businesses in the state. There are pancakes for sale and live demonstrations of sap being boiled down to make syrup and a lot of maple trees with active sap lines.

Localists get to see their dream world in action - local people drawing raw materials from the earth and turning them into high-end organic products. Maple syrup sells for a lot at these events - A local newspaper reported the statewide average as $55 a gallon. Localists see these prices as being earned by independent people, with no corporate strings attached or middlemen.

There's a lot more to the story, and it shatters the cottage-industry image that attracts the "buy local" crowd.

It's true that some of the maple syrup is produced there inside the "sugar house." Maple syrup sellers use cordless drills to put blue plastic tubes into the trees. The sap runs down these tubes into collection tubs and is then boiled down to remove most of the water. That's all there really is to it, and it's considered an organic product. That's kind of like certifying a bag of ice as organic - there was never a chance or reason to use synthetic pesticides or additives.

But that's only one way the independent maple syrup sellers get their syrup.

The other way is they simply buy it.

Companies like Bascom Family Farms of Vermont have large-scale operations, and so they produce maple syrup cheaply. The small operations in Southern Maine aren't very efficient, and the industry could lose a lot of money if the climate fails to produce much sap, which is what happened this year.

One maple syrup maker I talked to said that two-thirds to three-quarters of the syrup they sell each year is purchased as "bulk maple syrup" from a company in northern Maine. Some produce all of their own syrup, and others fall somewhere else on the spectrum. It's a common business plan because it's very profitable.

Essentially, Maine maple syrup businesses are middlemen. They put on a demonstration of collecting sap and boiling it down to entertain customers, but bulk syrup is so cheap that they can just buy it and pour it into their own bottles. This doesn't apply to every maple syrup business in Maine - some do produce everything they bottle. However, those who do buy bulk syrup don't volunteer that information during their demonstrations.

If someone wanted to only eat foods produced in Maine, they wouldn't be happy with this system. Now would people who make a point to know exactly where their food comes from, or those who take "food miles" seriously.

People like me, however, see nothing wrong with the way the system works. People are selling valuable products using efficient production methods. Maple syrup producers in rural area are getting business because their large operations are efficient. The climate was awful this year for syrup production by the small part-time operations, and they would have lost a lot of money without the aid of the bulk maple syrup vendors.

My only qualm is that keeping the real recipe a secret gives localists and the general public a false view of the world. They are organized under the Maine Maple Producers Association, that perpetuates the myth of an all-Maine syrup origin. Businesses should be free to get their materials from whatever side of the border they want, but they shouldn't mislead the public to where it came from.


  1. Maple syrup from out of state cannot be legally rebottled and sold as Maine syrup.
    If you have knowledge of someone doing so you should report it to the Maine Dept of Ag.
    There is a process for being certified organic, Not using additives, certain harvesting and collecting practices. Your Blog seems very one sided and negative for a former editor. But I understand why your a former editor. You misspelled Bascom's