FERRISBURGH-Vermont's maple syrup production marked a 76-year high point this year. An extra long season of tapping the sap of sugar maple trees helped create a record-breaking harvest, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service.
Local maple producers are now awash with high quality syrup and the word from experts is that the year's product is among the best in memory.
Sam Cutting IV, owner and operator of Vermont's largest maple product operation, Dakin Farm based inFerrisburgh, has had a few weeks to assess both the pluses and the minuses of this year's maple bonanza.
Cutting's Dakin Farm operation is known nationwide for its mail-order and retail business that sells made-in-Vermont goodies, from bacon and pancake mix to frothy jugs of fresh maple syrup-and more.
We asked Cutting-who was busy overseeing new shipments of maple syrup from his Ferrisburgh plant to customers in all 50 states and beyond-about the good news announced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service a few weeks ago.
Varricchio: You've been a leader in maple syrup production and retailing in Vermont, so how does this year's USDA report differ from previous years? Do you see the "good news" reflected in your sales and/or production in 2011?
Cutting:This year production was high and so was last year. This year was a cold maple season and it warmed up just enough for the sap to run. Due to the cold, there was a lot of light colored syrup made-Fancy grade and grade A Medium Amber. Last year was a warm maple season and there was more dark syrup made. Both years were near record production.
What this means is that we have a lot of syrup to sell. We buy syrup from the same farmers in Franklin County every year and they expect us to take their whole crop. Since they made so much syrup it really is more syrup than we need.
We are sitting on a lot of inventory. I'll do my best to sell it all. I will work on selling more syrup with our new web site, with additional marketing on Google and other places. I really don't see the price going down. however. This is because making maple syrup is labor and energy intensive. With all the costs of production, the price really can't go much lower.
Varricchio: Does (or can) Vermont actually sell all the gallons of syrup it produces?
Cutting:This is a difficult question that I struggle with. I am trying to sell more syrup since there is so much out there, but it seems that people only need so much syrup. Most people only use maple syrup for the their pancakes and waffles and people don't eat pancakes and waffles all that often. As with many of our products, maple syrup seems to be something people use only for special occasions.
I would love to expand our recipes and get people to use maple syrup for cooking and for other uses such as on hot cereal, in recipes, on grapefruit and as a marinade for meat. I think it may be difficult to move all the syrup Vermont has produced during the past two years. Part of the reason there is so much syrup is that there are more trees being tapped and technology has expanded production.
As we recently saw, there was record production in a warm year and record production in a cold year. Technology and expanded tapping have both contributed to this surplus and it remains to be seen if we can move all this syrup.
Varricchio: Does Dakin Farm have any numbers it can report: gallons sold, etc.? Did you hire full- or part-time employees to help this year (over last year)?
Cutting: At Dakin Farm we sell over 70,000 containers of syrup each year. Our growth rate in sales is between 5 percent and 10 percent each year. We do not hire extra employees during maple season. Our regular staff works a lot of overtime during maple season.
Varricchio:Where do you buy your raw sap? I believe you have your own sugarbush in Ferrisburgh, but where else does Dakin syrup originate?
Cutting: Our raw sap comes from Harry Atkinson in Monkton. We only make about seven 30 gallon barrels of syrup ourselves since we do not own a large sugarbush.
We purchase most of our syrup, over 400 barrels from these large family farms in Franklin county; the largest maple producing county in Vermont. The syrup all comes in to Dakin Farm in the spring soon after it is made. We store it in bulk, underground to keep it at a cool, consistent temperature. Then, each week we bring 10-12 barrels down to our packing room and pack it in retail containers. This way, we pack our own syrup, we know what is in the containers, we have control over the quality and the syrup always leaves Dakin Farm freshly packed. Also, by packing the syrup ourselves, we avoid the "middle man" so our costs are low and we can pass this on in the form of low retail prices for our maple products.
We believe we have the best quality maple syrup from the best maple producers in the state, packed fresh with a high degree of knowledge at the best price.
Varricchio: Why was production this much? Climate? More trees tapped? What? Also, have we been at this number of gallons before?
Cutting: Technology and more trees tapped contributed to the abundance of maple syrup. Climate was also good, but, I think it had more to do with technology and number of trees tapped.
Varricchio: What does the future look like for Vermont maple syrup? Do you worry about popular fears of climate change, changes in taste, etc.? the future looks good for Vermont maple syrup right now.
Cutting:Regarding climate change, I think that is something that future generations may have to worry about more. Right now, and especially last year, we had a cold maple season.
Varricchio: Is there such a thing as organic maple syrup?
Cutting: There is such a thing as organic maple syrup. All pure Vermont maple syrup is produced in an organic way. However, only those producers who go through a lot of paper work and inspection can certify that their syrup is organic.
Our farmers have not gone through this process. When we explain how wholesome and natural our maple syrup is, there really is no call for us to offer the certified organic label on our syrup. This is something we will continue to follow .
Varricchio:Briefly, please tell us when Dakin Farm started producing and selling maple syrup?
Cutting: When my dad purchased Dakin Farm in 1960 it was called "Dakin Farm Maple Market". Maple has always been our primary crop.
We have expanded more in the area of meat and cheese production by introducing so many new products in these other areas. It seems we have always carried everything to do with maple from the very beginning. Maple syrup combines very well with our smoked breakfast meats and in gift packs with meat and cheese. Also, we use pure maple syrup in our meat department in a big way. Most of our meats are cured with maple.
We use maple to glaze our spiral hams and turkeys and we use maple in making our sausages.
Varricchio: A final question-is Canada a fierce competitor in Vermont and the rest of the states?
Cutting: Canada is a fierce competitor on a global basis. Far more syrup is produced in Quebec than in Vermont. Also, their quality is good. Regarding the other states, New York is second to Vermont, however, in Vermont we always produce more syrup. There is a fair amount of syrup produced in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts as well. However, Vermont has the reputation for producing the most maple syrup and the best maple syrup in the country and we work hard to maintain that position.
Varricchio: Thank you.
Cherish Hulst, assistant manager of the Dakin Farm retail store in Ferrisburgh, said the most popular Vermont maple syrup is Grade A medium. "It has been a great season for maple syrup sales," she said.