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The Vermont Maple Industry 2011

by Bill Clark

As we approach the 2011 maple season, what might Vermont maple producers expect in regard to production, market and prices? As a group, have we become a bit complacent having just come through three years of record high prices and production? Are we beginning to believe Cloud Nine just keeps on going?

Perhaps you’ve been so busy making money that you haven’t taken time to look at history. History shows that maple, like many other agricultural enterprises, can go from feast to famine in the blink of an eye. Today, maple is a world market commodity. For over 100 years, Vermont has enjoyed the image as producer of the world’s best maple syrup. There are a lot of other maple regions that would love to cut in on that.

Just north of Vermont, there is a small Canadian province that also produces a bit of maple syrup (perhaps about 10 times as much as Vermont). They would like to convince consumers worldwide that they have the world’s best—so much so that their producers willingly contribute several cents per pound annually to generate a few million dollars to do just that! Here in the U.S., a number of maple states are aggressively promoting both production and sales. They would love to get a piece of Vermont’s market. Then there is the pancake artificial syrup market that just loves to steal the real maple syrup market, as we’ve just seen in the case of the Log Cabin maple-looking jug.

If Vermont maple wishes to remain on the cutting-edge, then our producers need to get much more aggressive in dollars and cents in promoting our Vermont brand. This is where the Vermont Maple Foundation comes in.

Under its new president, Pam Green, and its forward-thinking Communications Committee, a much-expanded professional marketing plan is now in the works. They have solicited some expertise in marketing from outside of the maple world, including Neil Hilt of Vermont Public Television. Most of you should have received a foundation letter in mid-November outlining this plan. The letter was also an invitation for you to invest in ongoing marketing of your industry. There is a good opportunity here to broaden our Vermont brand image. Don’t miss this chance to insure your future.

Other matters to be informed about

For more than a year now, industry leaders have a volunteer committee working on the concept of joining our three current maple organizations into a single maple organization. The three current groups are The Vermont Sugar Makers Association, The Vermont Maple Industry Council and The Maple Foundation. This January, you should be getting a chance to see the draft plans to date, including proposed bi-laws. Since all of this will impact the future of each of you, it’s critical that you stay fully informed and offer input into the final design of this new organization.

We have 12 maple counties in Vermont, and most have a county maple association. Since the end of the 2002 UVM Extension Maple Schools, VMSMA has lost much of its one-on-one contact with county maple producers. The maple conferences, which replaced the schools, do not have a strong VMSMA presence, and many producers, especially in “fringe” counties, are absent from these conferences. There may also be the question in some counties, “Who needs a state association anyway?” Dissention and division never builds a strong industry, so, it’s important that all county associations maintain strong ties with the state association. That’s why it’s so important that you have input into the design. This whole idea is still a work in progress and could take one to two years for implementation.

Some thoughts

Finally, how many of you don’t want to see a producer registration or certification program? Twelve years ago, in February 1999, the Vermont maple industry held a two-day forum. The number one recommendation was a mandatory registration of all maple producers within the next three to four years. Today, we’re still where we were then: no registrations. Now we’ve added another problem, confusing the consumer on what Vermont maple syrup designations he or she should pick. For over 100 years, we’ve sold the world’s best pure Vermont maple syrup, the industry’s gold standard. Nowadays, it seems, that’s not good enough. A small amount of Vermont syrup is now classed as a “Seal of Quality Product.” Does this send a message to the consumer that most other Vermont syrup lacks that quality?

All maple syrup is basically organic; however, a few producers have “certified organic.” This syrup is implied to be slightly more organic than regular syrup. The big downside here is that organic producers, on their websites, lead consumers to believe other maple syrup may not be safe or fit to use. All of this is deception mainly to convince consumers that by paying more money, they are buying something inertly better. (This is not the sincere industry that I grew up with.)

With all of these qualifications of syrup out there it leaves the consumer confused. Does anyone know what he or she is really selling? Standard certification of all would put an end to this confusion.

Back to that old certification issue—“Ouch! We don’t want that!”

However, it is just what we need in this food savvy, food conscious world. Consumers need to know that even maple is done right. Mandatory certification to an industry-wide set of food standards puts everyone on the same level playing field.

With all the health and purity food issues out there today, producers need to know how to do it right and be sure they are doing so. We have growing numbers of new producers; many of them and many old-timers don’t get to maple conferences any more and are not well-informed.

The industry needs to develop the criteria and system for implementing a certification program. It needs to happen sooner rather than later. Since most likely there would be mass opposition to such an idea, then perhaps the way forward would be a “voluntary certification” plan, to be phased in over a three to five-year timeframe.

Heavy promotion and marketing to be done to acquaint the consumer to look for certified producer syrup. (It’ll only be a year or two until bulk producers will need some sort of certification to even be able to sell to our packers and processors.) It’s best that the industry develop its own certification program than it is to have one shoved on us from an outside source.

So, as you prepare for the 2011 season, keep your mind open, keep informed, support your future through the Maple Foundation and voice your well-thought-out opinions.

Vermont has always been the leader. All of us working together can keep it that way.

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