UNDERHILL, Vt. — This year Vermont’s maple sugar makers Maple Open House Weekend runs two weekends March 19 and 20, and March 26 and 27.
Cory Ayotte, communications director at the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers’ Association said “The last two were canceled because of COVID. We feel as an association that the world is in a better place so that we can host this, so we’re getting back at it,”
Maple Open House Weekend is a self-guided tour of Vermont’s maple sugar operations who open their doors to the public. There are tours of sugaring houses, horse drawn carriage rides , pancake breakfasts and sugar-on-snow parties are some of the happenings during the Maple Open House Weekend.
Ayotte said he’s not sure just yet how many sugar makers will participate, since many don’t sign up until the weekend before.
“I think part of it is people are interested in signing up for the event, but this is also the time of year when they’re tapping trees, they’re getting their systems in place,” said Cory. “I think a lot of people want to make sure that stuff is taken care of so they can operate efficiently for the season, and I think once that has happened and they feel comfortable, they’re like, why not, the weather looks good, let’s sign up.”
Ayotte said the association members he’s spoken to have been excited about the coming weekends. For some it was a money-making event, for many it’s also a social event.
“Pre-COVID, people really enjoyed having their neighbors, and visitors from afar come to the sugar house, see the evaporation going on, seeing the steam rising, all those sorts of things, people really miss that,” Ayotte said, adding that the association has been fielding calls from out-of-state visitors about how they can maximize their visit to Vermont.
Last year, maple producers didn’t make as much product as they normally would so, the Québec Maple Syrup Producers decided to tap Canada’s national reserve of maple syrup to keep up with the high demand from the pandemic.
“That was big news for about a week or so, maybe two weeks, and then there hasn’t been much news since,” said Cory. He said the purpose of the reserve is to keep prices level, which it appears to have done.
Another obstacle facing Vermont’s maple sugar makers is also facing almost every other industry as well; supply chain dilemmas. Ayotte said the company that makes the syrup jugs that bear the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers’ Association label wasn’t able to keep up with demand, prompting Vermont’s sugar makers to get creative.
According to Ayotte, during the summer the association was hearing from many of its members that wait times for the containers, which had always been long, had nearly doubled. Through talking with the supplier, based in Massachusetts, it was learned that the biggest issue was in putting labels on the jugs. As it turned out, at least one Vermont maple-sugar maker, Purinton Maple and Tree Farm, in Huntington, was about to invest in its own labeling equipment, so it was tapped to handle that part of the process.
Buck Family Maple owner James Buck which is based in the town of Washington, said he’s on the association’s packaging committee which addressed this problem.
“We get most of our association-branded containers through a supplier in Massachusetts and they’ve had some struggles, just like everybody else, during the pandemic and even before the pandemic, and so lead times have become increasingly challenging,” Buck said. “The last couple years, lead times for containers for maple producers have been in excess of a year with unpredictable changes in timing, changes in price, and so it’s really been hard for producers to get the containers they need in a timely manner.”
Buck said having the labels done in Vermont is a stop-gap measure, but returning to the way things were likely won’t happen.
“We’re going to evolve forward from where we are today and find a, hopefully, inside-Vermont solution to label containers,” Buck added. “I think that’s going to be our solution going forward.”
Buck said he’s among those looking forward to the season and to the open house weekends, though his sugar house is one of those that’s off the main tourist corridors. He said some people do make it a point to find it, however.
“When we’ve hosted maple open houses in the past, we sometimes will get some folks that trickle through that might be visiting a bed and breakfast nearby, for example, but it’s not a real busy event for us,” Buck said. “But that said, other folks with more established retail spaces that are more car-friendly and accessible, they tend to do pretty well.”
Maple syrup is made from the xylem sap of sugar maple, black maple, or red maple trees; however, it can also be made from other maple species. Maple syrup production is mainly located in northeastern North America; specifically, the northeastern states (including New York, Vermont and Maine) and the southeastern parts of Quebec and Ontario, Canada.
Indigenous peoples from the northeastern part of North America were the first group known to produce organic maple syrup and maple sugar. Aboriginal oral traditions and archaeological evidence suggest that raw maple tree sap was being turned into syrup long before Europeans arrived. European settlers adopted the practice and advanced production methods.
At Underhill at the Proctor Maple Research Center, Gov. Phil Scott marked the 2022 sugaring season with the tradition of the “first tapping” of a maple tree ceremony. This was also celebrating the 75th anniversary of Underhill at the Proctor Maple Research Center.
“Our maple industry leads the nation, supports our economy and strengthens the Vermont brand, while the Proctor Maple Research Center at UVM reinforces that,” Gov. Scott stated in a release. “With the strong brand recognition of Vermont Maple comes a responsibility to keep our standards at the highest level, and our maple producers have been doing that for decades with the help of the Proctor Maple Research Center.”
Leslie Parise, dean of the UVM College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, which oversees Proctor Maple Research Center agreed with Gov. Scott’s statement.
“We are proud of our long history in maple research, demonstration and outreach at the University of Vermont and pioneering contributions of UVM maple scientists,” Parise said. “We look forward to continuing to better understand the most pressing issues facing Vermont maple producers and advancing the science to address them.”
According to Anson Tebbetts, secretary of the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, 50% of the maple syrup sold in the United States comes from Vermont,
For a list of participating sugar makers visit the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers’ Association website.