BANGOR, Maine — Maple syrup producers in Maine are holding out hope for a strong year, despite reports in some areas that the season has been lackluster at best.
While it’s true that many syrup producers yielded lower amounts than usual, that’s likely because the season started early and not because the state’s maples are producing less sap.
South of Augusta, the season has been over for a week or more, said Lyle Merrifield, president of the Maine Maple Producers Association. Merrifield, who lives in Gorham, said he, like many others, missed the beginning of the season, which in many areas started in early February.
“Looking back right now, if I personally would have tapped on February 1, I probably would have had a normal season,” he said. “We’re probably one-third off on the farm here.”
The situation was the same in many southern Maine areas, but Merrifield said the real story is happening in northern Maine, where the vast majority of Maine maple syrup is produced.
Eric Ellis is an office manager at Maine Maple Products in Madison. Owned by the Lariviere family of Quebec, the company draws from a sugaring operation north and east of Jackman that includes 75,000 tapped trees. The sap in that area of Maine is still running strong, said Ellis.
“We’re hoping we might have as much as one-third of the season left to go,” he said. “Mother Nature is in control of that.”
In a typical year, the syrup season in northern Somerset County begins around March 20, but Maine Maple Products workers were tapping trees weeks in advance of that this year.
“We hope our yield is going to be fairly close to normal,” Ellis said.
Maple syrup production is a lucrative industry. According to the New England Agricultural Statistics Service, Maine had a record-high production in 2009, churning out 395,000 gallons of syrup. That’s about 27 percent of the syrup produced in New England last year, ranking Maine second in production in both New England and the nation. Vermont accounted for 63 percent of production in New England and 36 percent of the production in the United States in 2009 with about 920,000 gallons. According to the survey, 2009 was a record year for virtually all syrup producers.
In 2008, Maine syrup sold for an average of $36.80 a gallon, with more than 90 percent sold to bulk purchasers. The average price in 2009, as well as production totals for this year, won’t be known until the New England Agricultural Statistics Service finishes its annual survey in June, said Gary Keough, director of the statistics service’s New England branch in Concord, N.H.
Catherine Stevens, a spokeswoman for the Vermont maple syrup industry, said the situation in that state is similar to Maine, with the season over in the south and thriving in the north.
“I would describe it as a mixed season,” she said. “From what I’ve heard, people have produced anywhere from 40 percent to 100 percent of a normal crop.” As in Maine, those who tapped their trees earlier — in some cases in January — produced more syrup.
Merrifield said lower-than-normal production for some in southern Maine doesn’t necessarily mean the season was a total bust. Many maple products manufacturers will simply buy from the bigger Maine farms, namely the ones in the north. In fact, said Merrifield, Mainers buying from Mainers has the effect of keeping the pro-ceeds from Maine syrup in Maine.
“We’ll buy Maine syrup from each other to make our value-added products,” he said. “It’s not necessarily a bad thing if we have a bad year in southern Maine. It keeps more Maine syrup in the state.”
Merrifield predicted strong years ahead for the syrup industry as tapping operations expand and technology becomes more affordable for smaller farms. One major advantage is having a vacuum system that literally pulls the sap from the trees. In the past, such an investment made sense only for those producing more than 500 gallons of syrup a year, but the price is coming down, and new products are being introduced to the market.
Ellis said his hopes are high for another couple weeks of sap up north.
“We remain optimistic until it’s over,” he said. “It’s the same with lots of aspects with agriculture: You just don’t know what cards Mother Nature is going to play.”