Site Visit: Maple Syrup Farm Owner Encounters Sticky Situation with Friends Across Border
By Prianka Sharma, Assistant Chief Counsel
While driving through Vermont, visitors may notice hundreds of maple syrup farms lining the rural highways. Maple syrup is a large industry in the Northeast and Canada. While hosting a regulatory reform roundtable in Burlington, VT, Advocacy staff stopped at Goodrich’s Maple Farm to learn about the process and hear about regulatory concerns affecting the industry.
Goodrich’s Maple Farm has been in operation since the 1830’s and is family-owned and operated. The surgaring season for maple syrup begins in early March and runs through mid-April; however according to owner Ruth Goodrich, the operation is a year-round endeavor. She said that it is sometimes hard to find skilled labor because sugaring is a very labor-intensive job. Employees must go out into the woods in the dead of winter on snowshoes in sub-zero temperatures in order to make sure that the equipment remains in place. Because of the dangerous temperatures and climate, she said that workers insurance comes at a high cost. Ms. Goodrich also said that it is difficult to find good and reliable help.
The farm rents the woods on which it taps trees from nearby private landowners. Ms. Goodrich stated that this itself is challenging because it is hard to negotiate lease terms that both parties can agree to. On average it takes 55-60 gallons of raw maple sap for 1 gallon of syrup. The Goodrich’s currently tap over 44,000 maple trees in order to produce a high enough volume of maple syrup each year to make a good profit. The taps are placed on the trees anywhere from 5 to 25 feet from the base of the tree. Piping is run from the base of the tree to the collection units, and ultimately the sap is run to the main farming area where the sap is then heated to reduce the sugar anywhere from 15-20 percent. Once it cools, the finished product is maple syrup. Other maple products are produced using the same methods, and simply changing the amount of heat.
Ms. Goodrich stated that the state of Vermont has very strict regulations for maple syrup. It must be filtered and comply with color standard gradings and flavors. Additionally, there are labeling and packaging requirements. She felt that their biggest competitors in the industry are Canadian companies who are subsidized by the Canadian government. As a result, those Canadian companies control the pricing in the United States and flood the market with their products which causes the overall price of syrup to go down. She stated that right now there are no tariffs on any products coming south from Canada such as the maple syrup, only products going north.
She also spoke about regulations related to FDA sugar labeling and that maple syrup should not fall under “added sugar” labeling requirements because there is no added sugar in the product; it is an organic substance that does not require the addition of sugar. She also spoke about USDA’s organic certification programs and stated that without proper enforcement, the certification is not worth the expense because other producers claim their products are organic without proper certification and there is no mechanism for ensuring they are not misrepresenting the product.
Finally, Ms. Goodrich spoke about water quality issues, especially at the state level. She stated that due to improper design, sewer systems overflow into waterways which pollutes not only the water but the trees that rely on the water. Maple syrup does go through a filtration process and is heated to a high temperature, but this disruption could hurt the integrity of the sugaring process. In addition, winters have started lasting longer with strong and more dense snow events. This causes the ground to stay frozen longer and shortens the sugaring window. It also causes taps and lines to get buried and damaged by the snow which is an added cost of operation.
Overall, however, Ms. Goodrich said that she and her family are committed to the industry, and hope that with some changes to regulation the Vermont Maple syrup industry will continue to prosper.
Advocacy was in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont for Regional Regulatory Reform Roundtables July 16-18.
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Prianka Sharma is an Assistant Chief Counsel for Advocacy whose portfolio includes agriculture, energy, and natural resources. Sharma can be reached at Prianka.firstname.lastname@example.org.