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Sugaring: Inside The Maple Syrup Industry

It’s sugar season in the maple forests of the U.S. and Canada. We’ll look at the secrets of the maple syrup industry, and how it’s dealing with climate change.

Any minute now, any day, as soon as this winter’s deep cold breaks, the sugaring season will be on.  In the great stands of tapped maple trees – the sugarbush – the sap will run.  The sugarhouses will fire up.  And another harvest of maple syrup will be on its way.  We think quaint, old-timey scenes from Vermont, New Hampshire, up into Canada.  But it’s big business, too.  With a big cartel, big heist history, big concerns about climate change.  This hour On Point:  The sugar season.  We go deep in the woods and the ways of maple sugaring.

– Tom Ashbrook

Guests

Doug Whynott, author, journalist and professor of literature. Author of the new book “The Sugar Season: A Year In the Life of Maple Syrup, and One Family’s Quest for the Sweetest Harvest.” Also author of “Following the Bloom,” “Giant Bluefin,” “A Country Practice” and “A Unit of Water, A Unit of Time.”

David Marvinfounder, president and owner of Butternut Mountain Farm.

From Tom’s Reading List

Boston Globe: A jolt for the science behind harvesting maple sap – “Experiments at the University of Vermont’s Proctor Maple Research Center show that maple sap — the raw material that sugar makers boil into syrup — can be efficiently vacuumed from the decapitated trunks of saplings, sharply increasing syrup production. That’s a radical departure from the centuries-old practice of inserting a small tap a few feet above the base of a mature tree, relying on the force of gravity and internal pressure to draw off the sap.”

Canadian Business Journal: The great Canadian maple syrup heist – ” As Quebec has risen to become by far the world’s leading producer of maple syrup, the federation has evolved into a powerful marketing board with almost absolute control over the provincial industry. Aside from small retail containers at roadside stands, farmers’ markets and the like, all Quebec maple syrup must pass through the federation, which dictates how much each producer can sell, and penalizes unauthorized production and selling. A faction of dissenting producers that defy the federation and supply the black market, when caught, are often fined severely.”

Marketplace — “Canada may hold 80 percent of the world’s maple production, but the U.S. produces its fair share of the sweet stuff. In New Hampshire, Bruce Bascom’s maple farm produces 80,000 gallons of sap per day. His family business, Bascom Maple Farms, is the largest producer in the state, with 300 miles of vacuum pipe to suck the sap out of trees. Bascom’s farm is modernizing the age-old craft of tapping trees and hanging buckets.” 

Read an Excerpt From “The Sugar Season” by Doug Whynott

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  • BOBinRSI

    Great father – son project. I made it with my dad when I was in 6th grade. Taps cut from old ski poles, sap collected in Maxwell House cans, boiled it on an old grill. We started cooking it before I left for school and it was still going when I got home. A few old pallets burned up in the process. So much heat and steam. “Dealing with climate change” its causing climate change but I will put some in the salad dressing this evening.

  • Unterthurn

    Questions: What is the difference between maple syrup that is marked “organic” and regular maple syrup? Shouldn’t all of it, in reality, be organic? Also please explain the grading system for the syrup? Is one grade better then another or is it a taste preference?
    Thanks!

  • tbphkm33

    Question: Had someone adamantly claim that once opened, you have to use the syrup within a month or two. That syrups in general can quickly build up bacteria. Anyone know if there is any truth in this? Sure, it is a sugar rich substance, but I had never heard this about syrups before.

    • jefe68

      I keep maple syrup in the fridge after I open it and I’ve never had any problems.

      • John Cedar

        No real problems here when I refrigerate it for 6 months plus. Some of it crystallizes on the bottom over time. Pathogens grow even slower in the freezer than they do in the refrigerator.
        I have also consumed some that was not sealed properly but sat for months at room temperature. It got a little mold on top and my parents skimmed that it off then brought the syrup to a boil for a minute or two before feeding it to us.

        • jefe68

          Funny how political divisions fall away when people talk about food, and maple syrup in particular.

          Now I’ve made some mean BBQ sauce using maple syrup and cajun spices, talk about a meeting of North and South…

          • tbphkm33

            That is true… until the topic of road kill comes up. That tends to be the domain of one political affiliation often dominant in rural areas…

    • jomuir

      Pure maple syrup keeps for years. My maple syrup guy (a man at a car repair shop in northern Michigan) told me to skim any mold & boil the syrup for a few minutes if it gets any mold growth. I did that once & am still alive years later. He also suggested that for long term storage the syrup be kept in the freezer right in the glass Mason jar. I try to buy at least two quarts every summer when we go. Didn’t make it last summer & we are making due w/a jug of Canadian maple syrup from Costco this year.

    • nj_v2

      Echoing others’ comments, it’s nothing to worry about.

      Keep opened containers in the frig. Occasionally, if kept long enough, some surface mold can form. Scrape it off, put the syrup in a pan and bring to a slow boil for a minute or two, and you’re good.

      Bacteria are everywhere. Parts of our culture have become obsessed with “germs,” taking actions that are, ultimately harmful.

      • tbphkm33

        That’s what I have always done. Only thing that made me second guess it was that this person was a food scientist – so I though, maybe they would know best.

        You have to take these “food scientists” advise with a pinch of salt. We have had countless discussions over the years about salt in food – they see it as a flavor enhancer and see no problem in dumping salt into prepared foods. FYI – my friend works for a US major food producer.

  • John Cedar

    At the age of 11 or so, I tapped an 8″ “maple” tree in our backyard and after harvesting a gallon of sap over a couple days, proceeded to boil away the water. After observing that I was not going to be getting maple syrup for my efforts, I kept boiling and ended up with a fist sized clump of sugar with a lemony flavor to it. I believe that was a a soft maple tree. My father had advised me that I was not tapping a sugar maple but he never discouraged my experement.

    • jomuir

      there are other maples and other hardwood trees that can be tapped for syrup production but yield can be a lot less. Flavors are supposed to be quite different too. Wonder what it was you made?

    • Ray in VT

      There are some sugar maples at the house that I am buying. The former owner and his kids made syrup some years, and I’ve thought about doing it as well. Sugaring was always really fun at as kid. Of course I didn’t have to sit in the sugar house all night long boiling during a good run.

  • http://lawrencemusicgroup.com Alex Torrez

    Hi Tom,
    Will you by chance be at SXSW in Austin next week?
    I’d love to meet up over a plate of Texas BBQ and a cold Lonestar!
    Talk Nashville, Texas, BBQ and Music.

    @alxtorrez

  • Peggy

    Maple sugaring is a wonderful experience! But please consider the threats of invasive species to the maple trees, and how to prevent major infestations. Here in Worcester MA, we’ve been dealing with an infestation of Asian Longhorned Beetle (ALB) since 2008 and over 30,000 trees (mostly maples but other host trees as well) have been cut down to stop it. Please encourage people to be on the lookout and eradicate it before it gets a hold in another community. ALB will kill maple trees and could have a devastating impact on the Maple Sugaring industry. Shiny black with white spots, long antennae and blue legs. USDA, DCR lots of educational material available.

  • joseph makela

    love my Quebec no.1 Amber – c’est quelque chose!
    price is stable here in montreal,
    we call it “sugaring off” – visiting the sugar shack and feasting.
    yes it is the case this season! big snow.
    another great show Tom and team.
    cheers

    • nj_v2

      I prefer Grade B; a bit darker, smokier, richer, more complex. But it’s all good!

      • TFRX

        Grade B is the best for cooking, nestie paws?

      • jefe68

        Me too, so much more complexity.

  • nj_v2

    There’s been some work done with making syrup from species of trees other than maple—hickory, black walnut, birch.

    Could the guests comment on this?

    I was just out in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts where i saw some tap lines up.

    • nj_v2

      Thanks for relaying my question!

  • Marsha

    Please mention Hebron’s Maple Fest which is taking place in Hebron Connecticut this weekend. Most everything is no charge…There are sugar houses to visit and every organization has maple syrup food/activities lining Main Street. from the website: The Maple Festival is held annually the second weekend in March throughout the Town of Hebron, Connecticut. Each year thousands of people come from miles around to enjoy and experience the weekend of maple related events. The goal for this event is to bring families together and provide noncommercial, inexpensive enjoyment during a quiet time of year.

  • nj_v2

    In the east, a looming, potential threat to hardwood trees in general, and to maples—and the maple syrup industry in particular—is the Asian Longhorned Beetle, a nonnative, very destructive beetle. It can infest and tunnel through the wood of a number of deciduous species.

    Most populations so far discovered in the northeast and midwest have, it appears, been controlled—by cutting down and destroying the trees; there is yet no effective insecticide for this pest—but all it takes is a few escaped beetles to spread and and threaten forests.

    Many states and municipalities now prohibit importation of firewood from distant areas where the beetles have been found as a way to combat the spread of this pest.

    Someone taking a pickup-truck-full of infested wood to a campground in a tapping region could destroy the maple syrup industry.

    • WorriedfortheCountry

      ” In Ontario, scientists studying the Asian long-horned beetle have determined that the beetle may be freeze-tolerant. It contains glycol, and it can experience extreme cold of -40 F and then come back to reproduce.”

      Bummer. No polar vortex savior.

  • Lee Atherton

    My first experience with sugaring was when I was a little girl and watched an episode of Little House on the Prairie where they sugared. We had a maple tree fall in a storm that same week. I talked my parents into putting pots and pans under the drips. We loved the results so much that it became a family tradition. Many years later, we were featured on a two page spread in the local newspaper. Several more years later, when my daughters were in Brownies, someone remembered that article, asked me if we still did it, and we found ourselves a local souting visit site for earning a badge about maple syrup.
    I’m sad to say that I no longer live in that home. We sure did enjoy 30 years of sugaring!!

  • Julia in Lynn

    I have noticed for the first time this year –for about a week now, large globs of clear sap dripping from a large branch union with a smaller branch, and a couple of squirrels hanging out on that branch and drinking it all up. Looks like the squirrel couple has decided that tapping season has started in Lynn, MA.

    Question for your guest. I was disturbed to see in the Boston Globe this weekend the new method of cutting down young trees and sucking sap out–killing the tree. Very disturbing, seems VERY environmentally unfriendly and wonder about the quality too.

  • BHA_in_Vermont

    I grew up on Log Cabin and Aunt Jemima “maple” syrup. I moved to Vermont over 30 years ago and had REAL maple syrup. The difference can only be described as cardboard vs filet mignon. If I can’t have real maple syrup, there are no pancakes or waffles on my plate.

    Compare Aunt Jemima syrup ingredients:
    CORN SYRUP, HIGH FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP, WATER, CELLULOSE GUM, CARAMEL
    COLOR, SALT, SODIUM BENZOATE AND SORBIC ACID (PRESERVATIVES), ARTIFICIAL
    AND NATURAL FLAVORS, SODIUM HEXAMETAPHOSPHATE.

    to Maple syrup:
    Maple sap, boiled down.

    If you haven’t had the real stuff, try it. Unless “ignorance is bliss” and you are better off not knowing what you are missing so you don’t have to afford the real thing.

    • Ray in VT

      Preach on!

      • WorriedfortheCountry

        You mean Vermont Maid isn’t real? But it says vermont right on the label.

        • Ray in VT

          The state will sometimes go after companies that misappropriate our image. Connecting fake syrup to real Vermont maple is fighting words to some.

        • jefe68

          Nope, she’s shill for corn syrup.

    • TFRX

      Can someone find a chart tracking the decline of maple syrup in Aunt Jemima, Log Cabin, or the like over the last century?

      I swear it used to have more when my grandmother used it.

      • WorriedfortheCountry

        Did it ever have any real maple syrup?

        Here’s another secret – -Mrs. Buttersworth doesn’t have butter in it either.

    • jefe68

      You know, in New Hampshire and Canada they make some really fine Maple syrup as well, same trees I hear…

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