KNOX — Could the Pine Tree State become the sugar maple state?

Some state officials, tribal leaders and maple syrup producers say the answer is yes, but that it will take a lot of work and a lot of planning to sweeten Maine’s syrup industry so it becomes the national leader that Gov. Paul LePage believes it could be.

“He’s right, in a way,” Kathryn Hopkins, a maple products specialist with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, said Friday morning. “We have the trees. If we decide to get organized, get more young people and develop the market … Maine could do anything it wants.”

Last year, Maine’s licensed producers boiled millions of gallons of clear sap into 450,000 gallons of syrup. That product is worth $24 million, and is enough to place the state third in the country in syrup production behind Vermont and New York. Vermont maple harvesters produced 1.3 million gallons, making it the dominant leader in the United States.

According to Hopkins, the industry already has been growing in Maine in recent years. Three years ago, there were just 380 or so licensed maple producers, but in January, there were 452. She said that lots of factors may contribute to the rise in interest, including the local, natural and organic food movements and the recent fall from grace of high-fructose corn syrup.

Kevin Brannen of Spring Break Maple and Honey of Smyrna, the vice president of the Maine Maple Producers Association, said that Maine already is a national leader in syrup production, and often trades places with New York for second place. He said that while Maine has the maple trees, access to those trees is not easy, because a lot of the state’s northern tier is held by large landowners. Another question on his mind is how the $20 million set aside for maple expansion in the new national Farm Bill will be distributed.

“Hopefully that will help to develop more farms in the state and more sugar bushes,” he said. “It’s an exciting time to be in the maple business. There’s a lot of technological advances. It’s just a fun time to be in it. There’s a lot of innovation and a lot of networking going on to get more sap per tap.”

Hopkins said there’s lots of room to grow the maple market, with North Americans eating, on average, just three ounces of maple syrup per person annually. In contrast, the average American consumed about 35.7 pounds of high-fructose corn syrup a year, according to a 2009 report from the Illinois Farm Bureau.

Maine needs to make sure there’s a good marketing strategy in place to find customers for the state’s maple syrup, before trying to hugely expand its production, Hopkins said. Right now, the state promotes maple syrup through the “Get Real Maine” marketing program that supports all Maine-produced commodities such as potatoes, blueberries and local cheese. But more could be done, she said.

“Vermont’s been marketing syrup forever. You say maple syrup, you think Vermont,” Hopkins said. “Developing maple for the state of Maine, that it has as much recognition value as lobsters and blueberries or potatoes, you don’t do that in a weekend.”

Tribal values

Passamaquoddy Chief Joseph Socobasin said Friday that he has marketing on the mind as his tribe starts a major new maple syrup venture they hope will lead to jobs and some revenue. After receiving a $1.5 million grant last year through the federal Administration for Native Americans to tap trees on a large swath of land the tribe owns in western Maine, they have hit the ground running, he said.

This year, the tribe expects to place 4,000 taps, with the eventual potential for 80,000 taps on the 60,000 acres they own in the Jackman area. They’ve also purchased a reverse osmosis machine that will take much of the water out of the sap right away, so that it will take less time and fuel to boil into maple syrup.

“The plan down the road for us is to start bottling and marketing our own maple syrup,” Socobasin said. “Once we’re a couple years into this and we’re producing enough, we’d like to go to L.L. Bean and places like that. We have blueberries, maple syrup, maybe a pancake mix — we could sell it as a gift pack in a tribally-made basket.”

He said that the tribe is hoping to get its sugar bush organically certified this week.

“It would go hand in hand with Passamaquoddy values, trying to do everything as organic as possible,” he said.

Penobscot Nation Rep. Wayne Mitchell said that his tribe also owns a lot of land with a lot of sugar maples on it, and that he feels it’s very positive that LePage has been working with the tribes to increase their maple syrup production. It’s likely that the Penobscots would tap more of their trees and run more plastic tubing through the forests to collect the sap, and then sell the raw product to a sugar house, he said.

“It would be a good venture to get into. Anything we could do to make the economy better and make jobs, we’re going to try,” Mitchell said. “We’re one of the 10 largest landowners. It’s natural to ask us to participate, and of course we’re more than willing to be a part of it. I love maple syrup — and we’re the ones who taught the Europeans what it was, along with a lot of other things.”

‘Keeping my fingers crossed’

Mary Anne Kinney, of Kinney’s Sugarhouse in Knox, said that the global market is rising for maple syrup, which has led to higher prices recently.

“They’re finding out what it is,” she said. “It’s an exclusive product to North America. When people visit family and friends in other countries, they take it with them. It’s something they just don’t have.”

Her family is banking on maple syrup’s continued popularity. They made just over 3,000 gallons of syrup last year, using 9,000 taps and modern equipment that includes 70 miles of tubing that runs through the wooded hillsides of her Waldo County town. The tubing system is on a vacuum, which means that the tree will still release its sap on high-pressure days, and the evaporator used to cook down the sap is stainless steel. The equipment needed to produce high-quality maple syrup on that kind of scale is not cheap, she said.

“An operation our size, to get started is a minimum of $100,000,” Kinney said.

One fairly new producer with a smaller business is Josh Knipping of Back Ridge Sugar House in Winterport. He said that he runs about 500 taps in his operation, which the boat technician said doubles as his retirement plan. Last year, his first time participating in Maine Maple Sunday, he had at least 200 people who came through to taste the wares and watch the wood-fired evaporator at work. This year, he just hopes that the sap will start running soon enough to have some syrup at hand for the visitors he expects will come through his sugar house this Sunday.

“That’s on everybody’s mind right now,” he said. “This time of year, when things haven’t started and things are still this cold, we could have three days. We could have a week or two weeks. We just don’t know. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.”

Producers might be antsy because it’s been too cold for the maple sap to start flowing freely, but experts like Hopkins said that things are right on track.

“I think this season will be good,” she said. “We had a nice wet fall, and a good winter, so the trees are well-hydrated. Unless we have a sudden warm-up, going from 10 degrees to 80 degrees, we are not that late yet. March is the normal tapping time.”

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