Like other maple producers, Russell Black of Black Acres Farm has maintained his retail syrup prices despite his inventory overload this year. Black sells his syrup out of his farmhouse store at 123 Black Road in Wilton. Andrea Swiedom/Franklin Journal

REGION — The long-term effects of the coronavirus on the maple syrup industry are becoming more clear with a flooded wholesale market and usual retail outlets halted. The Maine Maple Association and Maine delegates have petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture to consider maple syrup as an eligible crop to receive aid from the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program

“My hunch is that we might not get put on it, and the reason being is because maple syrup is considered a shelf stable product,” President Scott Dunn of the Maine Maple Producers Association said in a phone interview. 

“But it doesn’t take into account maple candies, maple creams, maple whoopie pies; things that do have shelf lives that producers make and have ready for the Maple Sunday events that were canceled and postponed, as well as the reduction in the products that they’ve made,” Dunn said. “Producers are not able to make the creams now because there’s not the demand for it.”

Russell Black from Black Acres Farm in Wilton said this season was his second best year for syrup production in his 57 years of tapping trees. His operation produced 200 gallons of syrup, the majority of which he is still sitting on.

Black Acres Farms has the majority of this season’s 200 gallons of syrup still in storage containers. Black said that due to low wholesale prices, it may not be economical for him to sell his syrup to a bulk buyer. Andrea Swiedom/Franklin Journal

“For me, maple syrup has been hit harder than any of the other commodities when you stop to think about it,” Black said in a phone interview. “To lose that big sale day for Maine maple producers, and it’s the same for Vermont and New Hampshire, to lose that big sale day, and it sells a lot of syrup, and I think it’s going to affect us long term with the inventory levels.”

Maple producers often sell 50% of their product in one day on the fourth Sunday of March during which sugar houses open their doors to the public. The remainder of the year, producers market to restaurants and fairs, sell syrup straight from their farm and if necessary, transport the remainder of their syrup to wholesale markets. 

“Now that the fairs have been canceled, that’s another substantial impact to the producers and at this point, we’re hoping we can get through the craft fair season without those being canceled,” Dunn said. “That would be another hit that producers go to annually. I don’t think any producer is exempt from what’s being impacted.”

After restaurants were closed for indoor dining for a month and a half due to Governor Mills’ executive order, syrup producers have sold very little to their usual outlets. With many producers still sitting on a year’s worth of inventory, the syrup market is flooded which could potentially drive bulk prices down. 

“Maple syrup is dependent on Canadian syrup and how much backlog and inventory they have. They control the price pretty much, and one of two big buyers like Bascoms in New Hampshire buys most of the bulk syrup out of Canada and out of Maine,” Black said. 

Irene and Tony Couture of Maple Valley Farm in Jay were planning on selling the remainder of last year’s syrup to Bascoms when the pandemic hit. Travel to New Hampshire was restricted in late March and April which prevented them from transporting their syrup to the wholesale buyer. 

With wholesale syrup prices at about $2/lb, it may not be worthwhile for producers to load trailers full of syrup kegs, weighing on average 200 pounds each, to transport to bulk buyers.

The Coutures produced over 500 gallons of syrup this year. Despite being one of the few sugar houses that remained open for Maple Sunday, they still have the majority of this year’s syrup stored in kegs. Maple Valley Farm typically sees about 600 people visit their sugar house on Maine Maple Sunday.

“I don’t think we did more than a hundred,” Irene Couture said, in regards to this year’s Maple Sunday. 

The profit from Maple Valley Farm’s syrup covers the taxes on the property where the Couture family has been tapping trees for three generations.

The Coutures of Maple Valley Farm in Jay have been maple producers for three generations. Pictured above is Tony Couture’s late father, Placide Couture drilling a tap into a tree. Photo courtesy of Maple Valley Farm

“Right now, the biggest bill coming is always the property tax bill. Tony’s mom is, she’ll be 93, and there’s no way she could afford that on that property. So it’s basically to pay property taxes,” Irene Couture said.

Additionally, with less tourists permitted to travel in Maine, producers are also experiencing a drastic decrease in farmhouse sales.

“It’s like a chain reaction, people aren’t here buyin’; we’re sitting on a lot of syrup right now,” Bruce Tracy of Maple Hill Farm in Farmington said, in a phone interview.

Tracy produced about 1,000 gallons of syrup this season and has also relied on Bascoms throughout the years to sell his surplus.

Now, maple producers have to deliberate their best move for next season’s production. For equipment such as evaporators and reverse osmosis systems to run efficiently, a minimum number of trees must be tapped depending on the size of the operation.

“For me, the smallest number of taps I have to put out is 800,” Black said. “I prefer 1,000 or 1,200 or more, but I can’t operate efficiently below that number.”

Because of this base number of tapped trees that producers must comply with to run their operations, they may experience even more of an inventory backlog. That is, if producers even decide to tap next year. 

The Maine Maple Association is considering marketing a Maine Maple weekend this fall to recover the loss of syrup revenue. Dates are still being deliberated, but Dunn is looking at the first weekend in October since the Fryeburg Fair has been canceled. 

Related Headlines

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.