High Demand, Supply Challenges: Maple Crop 2021

Equal parts science and magic, sugaramaking requires navigating the unknowns, and above all, listening to the land, says seventh generation sugarmaker Arnold Coombs. Here, a look at the 2021 crop and the challenges farmers face.

Long before it was called sustainable agriculture, the Bascom family farmed its sugarbushes sustainably. It’s been seven generations now, and the Bascom family is still farming those same forests, as they did in 1928. During that time, we’ve seen a lot of variables in maple production, or sugarmaking. As with all agriculture, Mother Nature and external conditions determine how well the crops fare. Equal parts science and magic, sugaramaking requires navigating the unknowns, and above all, listening to the land.

The 2021 maple crop was disappointing for nearly all sugarmakers. Maple production requires sunny days, cold nights, and a specific amount of snowfall for best tapping. For over 10 years in a row, the maple industry had enjoyed excellent conditions and record-setting crops. This season, farmers throughout the Northeast had neither the weather nor ideal conditions.

The sugar content of the sap was down in most regions, which led to lower production. For example, one farmer in northern Vermont taps about 22,000 trees and got the same number of gallons of sap this year as last year (a record crop), yet he produced 72% of the amount of maple syrup as last year. Why? Because the sugar content of the sap was lower. If sap is 2.5% sugar, it will take 34.4 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. If the sap coming out of the tree is 1.5% sugar, it will take 57.3 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup. It’s the same quantity of sap, but produces less maple syrup. Researchers at the Proctor Research Center for Maple at the University of Vermont believe this is due to drought conditions last summer as well as a big seed production year, which takes energy from the trees.

Arnold Coombs, seventh generation sugarmaker, tending the boiler at the family farm.

On our own farm, we tapped 106,000 trees by mid-February. We boiled for the first time on February 26 and finished on April 9. Approximately 95% of our syrup was made between March 10 and April 9, creating a very short season. In seasons past, we’ve had not only a longer production season but also a more fruitful harvest.

Of all maple syrup produced, organic production was about 45% in the U.S. and 50% in Quebec.

The base price for maple syrup is set by the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers and this base price is followed by farmers in the U.S. Therefore, the exchange rate is an important factor in calculating syrup costs. Last year on May 1, it was $1.41 Canadian to $1.00 USD. Today the rate is $1.21 Canadian to $1.00 USD, a 14% dip. The direct result is an increase in the cost of maple syrup. Organic is up slightly more than conventional as buyers increased the premium for organic syrup in an effort to increase production at the farm level.

In addition to costs of maple syrup increasing, everything else has as well. Containers, caps, labels, cardboard, labor, health insurance, and of course, freight. COVID certainly exerted an impact on logistics and materials.

Fortunately, farmers are able to get a higher price for their crop and are coming out okay. Although supply is tight, it’s important to pay farmers up front and in full for syrup, and offer technical support and equipment trades. That’s how generations of farm families stay on the land. We source maple from over 3,000 small family farms that share our commitment to quality, environmental stewardship, and sustainable forestry management. Producer relationships matter.

COVID also increased an already robust consumer demand in the form of pandemic baking, a return to “slower” breakfasts at home, and a craving for comfort food. Last year, the forecast for Fall straight through the holidays was delicious, pure maple, and we’re apt to see that again.

Recently, a team of scientists at University of Rhode Island conducted research on the health benefits of maple; specifically, minerals, vitamins, amino acids and more than 67 bioactive natural plant compounds with potential health benefits. While maple has largely been lauded as healthy for what it is not—processed, refined and artificial—maple is recognized more and more as a healthy food for what it is: anti-inflammatory, antioxidant- and nutrient-rich.

Demand for pure and organic maple remains at an all-time high and that the next crop could be prolific. Maple is a key ingredient in both savory and sweet products, from baked goods and beer to cereals, sauces and meats. It’s a wholesome, nostalgic and smarter sweetener that’s not going away any time soon.

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Arnold Coombs is a seventh generation sugarmaker and Director of Sales & Marketing at Bascom Maple Farms and Coombs Family Farms. The Coombs family began working with maple more than 150 years ago. When Arnold was three, he began riding behind the tractor while his dad and grandad tapped trees. Soon enough, he was working in the sugarbush himself. Today, Bascom Maple Farms sources its maple from over 3,000 small family farms that share its commitment to quality, environmental stewardship, and sustainable forestry management. Bascom Maple Farms is the leading independent supplier of pure and organic maple syrup and sugar in the United States. In 1853, the Bascom family first tapped the sugar maples found on their small family farm. The farm has been passed down for eight generations, each generation sharing their passion for maple and maple sugaring knowledge onto the next. In addition to ingredient sales, Bascom Maple Farms provides private label maple syrup and maple sugar products and ingredient sales to some of the country’s largest retailers and brands, including its own brand, Coombs Family Farms. For more information about Bascom Maple Farms, visit www.maplesource.com.