September 18, 2018
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Researchers want to know what’s keeping Maine’s honey, syrup producers from expanding

Courtesy of Kourtney Collum
Courtesy of Kourtney Collum
Researchers with the University of Maine and College of the Atlantic are interviewing small- and medium-sized honey and maple operations this summer looking at the decisions that go into management and scales of operation.
By Julia Bayly, BDN Staff

Life is pretty sweet for Sara Velardi these days.

The University of Maine postdoctoral researcher is spending late summer into fall talking to Maine beekeepers and maple syrup producers as part of a study looking at the challenges and opportunities facing producers of some of the state’s tastiest natural products.

“We are hoping to find how our beekeepers and maple syrup producers are making scale management decisions,” Velardi said. “Are they wanting to scale up? Are there certain problems or challenges hindering that?”

The study, “Finding the Sweet Spot: Scales, Challenges and Opportunities for Beekeeping and Maple Syrup Production in Maine,” is one part of a $1 million, three-year USDA grant awarded to the University in Maine a year ago and aimed at sustainable agriculture research.

It is being conducted jointly between the University of Maine and the College of the Atlantic.

Of the grant, $498,462 was awarded to lead investigators Jessica Leahy, professor of human dimensions in natural resources; Julia McGuire, biologist; Dr. Melissa Ladenheim, associate dean of the honors college all from the University of Maine; and Kourtney Collum, chair of food and sustainable agriculture systems at College of the Atlantic.

Working with them are students Skye Siladi from UMaine and Marianna Mead from College of the Atlantic.

Specifically, the research team is collecting information from small- to medium-sized producers throughout the state in personal interviews covering their current operations, any plans to expand or downsize, specific challenges to expanding and what factors could come into play to make those decisions easier.

For the purposes of the study, a small beekeeper is defined as having fewer than 30 bee colonies and a medium operation as one with 30 to 300 colonies.

For the maple syrup producers, the study team wants to talk to small producers with less than 300 taps or medium producers with 300 to 3,000 tapped trees.

“We are also interested in learning about their practices and how they got into [beekeeping or maple syrup production] in the first place,” Velardi said. “This is the kind of information we hope can be turned into models of mentorship or recruitment strategies to build the industries.”

Leahy said combining research expertise from the two schools makes perfect sense and brings a wealth of talent and ability.

“We have these students who are working on projects that related to sustainable foods as part of their thesis work,” Leahy said. “They are listening to the producers needs and working to come up with projects that will help them.”

At the same time, Collum’s area of expertise on bees and looking at methods of raising more winter tolerant queens is a perfect fit into practical research. Interest in maple syrup production in Maine and how it factors in with multi-generational family operations versus first generation producers is the focus of the University of Maine academic team.

“We are excited about real research that benefits real people,” Leahy said.

According to the 2018 USDA national maple syrup report, Maine is the third largest producer of maple syrup in the country behind first-place Vermont and second-place New York.

More than 1.8 million taps were set last season with a total 2018 maple syrup yield of approximately 539,000 gallons.

According to the USDA’s 2018 Northeastern Region Annual Honey Report, Maine’s 12,000 honeybee colonies produced 396,000 pounds of honey in 2017.

“We are really focusing on those scales of production management,” Velardi said. “We also want to talk to producers about their interest in expanding value-added production and what influences those kinds of decisions.”

How producers network among each other and communicate is another area of interest in the study, according to Collum.

“We really have an incredible network of small and medium beekeepers, and are interested in the knowledge they have and how they share it among themselves,” Collum said. “This grant is allowing us to look at a lot of different dimensions [like] what does it take to sustain or grow your operation — is it marketing, value added products or diversifying?”

The sharing of knowledge from one beekeeper to the next is appearing to be a key factor, Velardi said.

“We want to see how they transfer knowledge and share information,” she said “Then we hope to come out with some sort of outreach materials producers can turn to to make those management decisions.”

So far the team has spoken to 10 producers, but Velardi said they are really just getting started. They hope to have the interviews wrapped up by October.

“People are reaching out to us who have seen flyers that have been posted on social media,” she said. “And the maple syrup producers have a directory, so we are able to consult with that.”

So far, Velardi said, the response from beekeepers and maple syrup producers to the study has been positive.

“People are absolutely excited about it, but that should really be no surprise,” she said. “For both bees and maple syrup, it’s something that makes people really happy and that is why they get into it. … They get so much joy out of it, and they so love talking about it.”

Anyone interested in taking part in the study should contact Velardi at 203-583-0181 or sara.velardi@maine.edu.

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