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How sweet it is UMaine research focuses on the state’s syrup production by Beth Staples and Elyse Kahl

Photo of syrup pouring onto dollar pancakes

UMaine researchers are engaged in helping the third-largest maple industry in the United States thrive — now and in the future.

Show me the money

Syrup production pours revenues into Maine

The Maine maple syrup that enhances the flavor of pancakes and ice cream also sweetens the statewide economy. University of Maine economist Todd Gabe says that, including multiplier effects, Maine’s maple industry annually contributes about $49 million in revenue, 805 full- and part-time jobs, and $25 million in wages to the state’s economy.

Multiplier effects occur when an increase in one economic activity initiates a chain reaction of additional spending. In this case, the additional spending is by maple farms, businesses that are part of the maple industry and their employees.

Maple producers provided information about their operations, which allowed for a detailed economic impact analysis, says Gabe, whose study was released in February. Each year, the industry directly contributes about $27.7 million in revenue, 567 full- and part-time jobs, and $17.3 million in wages to Maine’s economy, he says.

Maple producers earn about 75 percent of the revenue through sales of syrup and other maple products, including maple candy, maple taffy, maple whoopie pies and maple-coated nuts, he says.

Retail sales at food stores and the estimated spending of Maine Maple Sunday visitors on items such as gasoline and meals accounts for the remainder of revenue. This year, Maine Maple Sunday was celebrated March 23 at 88 sugar shacks and farms statewide.

Maine has the third-largest maple industry in the United States. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, maple syrup is produced in 10 states — Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Wisconsin.

In 2013, Maine accounted for 450,000 gallons, or 14 percent, of the more than 3.25 million gallons produced in the U.S. Vermont (1.32 million gallons) and New York (574,000) were the top two producers.

Among the three top-producing states, Maine had the highest growth rate — 25 percent — of production between 2011 and 2013, Gabe reports.

In Maine, the maple production industry appears to be dominated by a few large operations; the 10 percent of maple farms with 10,000 or more taps account for 86 percent of the total number of taps in the state, he says.

While the maple producers who participated in Gabe’s study had an average of 4,109 taps, almost 40 percent of Maine’s maple producers had fewer than 250 taps. The study participants have been tapping trees and boiling sap for an average of 24 years.

Depending on temperature and water availability, the length of the sap flow season varies. In Maine in 2013, it ran from March 4 to April 12.

Close to 40 percent of the maple producers licensed in Maine returned surveys for the study, which received financial support from the Maine Agricultural Development Grant Fund and Maine Maple Producers Association.

Maple syrup bottles

Making the grade

Maple school ensures a top-quality product

A decade ago, New England maple syrup industry experts offered a presentation for producers, bulk syrup buyers, state inspectors and others who need to accurately grade maple syrup or maple products for contest judging, commercial distribution or personal use. Continued requests from interested participants convinced the organizers to offer the presentation annually as a class, and the International Maple Syrup Institute adopted the program as a signature event — the Maple Grading School.

In 2004, Kathryn Hopkins, a University of Maine Cooperative Extension educator and professor; Henry Marckres, of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets; and Sumner Dole, a University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension forest resources educator, offered their first presentation on maple grading in Lancaster, N.H.

“We held the first school and thought we’d be done,” Hopkins says. “We enrolled 35 people — which was too many — and had a waiting list, so we decided to offer two years of the school. After that, we still had a waiting list and people started asking for the school to come to them.”

The two-day school, also known as a maple quality assurance program, aims to help U.S. and Canadian maple producers achieve consistent understanding of grading and quality standards to benefit consumers. It is offered by UMaine Cooperative Extension; the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets; and the International Maple Syrup Institute — a nonprofit organization founded in 1975 to promote and protect maple syrup and other maple products, according to the institute’s website.

The grading school’s location changes annually, with classes held in Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Ohio, Connecticut, Minnesota and Canada. Participants receive the latest information on grading, equipment calibration, food safety, quality control and best management practices from Canada and the U.S. A strong scientific base with hands-on exercises provide the foundation for increasing grading knowledge, with the long-term goal of helping save money by increasing profits and sales, or reducing costs and waste.

Although the USDA has established maple syrup grades, many states and Canadian provinces have their own regulations for production, licensing and grading. The USDA and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency are changing their regulations to conform to new international grade standards.

“We’re not telling them anything they don’t know or can’t find in a book, but the hands-on element is key to the school’s success,” says Hopkins of the more than 200 participants who have attended the school since it began in 2004. Participants range from hobbyists and agricultural high school instructors to commercial producers and inspectors.

Hopkins, an agriculture and natural resources expert, works with maple syrup producers statewide, and with farmers, Master Gardener Volunteers and home gardeners in Somerset County, which produces more maple syrup than any other county in the United States. Her research focuses on issues related to the maple industry, such as food safety and consumer acceptance of maple products.

Grades of goodness

Grading is used to determine the purity and flavor of syrup, which affects pricing. Syrup is graded by density, color, clarity and flavor, says University of Maine Extension Professor Kathryn Hopkins. The lighter grades have a more delicate flavor that is generally preferred for drizzling on ice cream; medium grades are often used on pancakes and waffles. The flavor of the syrup becomes more robust and full-bodied the darker the color gets, making the darker syrups more commonly preferred for cooking. Hopkins says although flavor is important, the most crucial lessons in grading focus on food safety to ensure syrup is free of contaminants and impurities.

Tapping resilience

Researching effects of weather and climate change on sap flow

Maple girl

To record weather and sap flow data, UMaine graduate student Jenny Shrum deploys weather stations at maple tree stands in Albion, Dixmont and Orono. She’s also using iButtons to record soil temperatures and time-lapse photography of the buckets to record hourly sap flow rates. She can then relate flow rates to variables the weather stations record, such as temperature, precipitation and sunlight.

Understanding more about the relationship between weather and maple sap flow, and how Maine syrup producers will adapt to climate change is the focus of research being conducted by University of Maine graduate student Jenny Shrum. The master’s student in ecology and environmental sciences is attempting to unravel the biophysical relationships between weather and sap flow. She wants to better understand what drives flow and how trends in climate may affect processes and harvesters.

This spring, Shrum collected on-site weather station data and sap flow rates at three test sites, and is interviewing small- and large-scale producers. The goal is to determine if longtime sugar maple stand managers will be more or less resilient to climate change, and if large-scale producers will be better equipped to adapt. Her research is supported by the National Science Foundation and EPSCoR through Maine’s Sustainability Solutions Initiative and its Effects of Climate Change on Organisms research project.

The physiological process for sap flow is not completely understood, Shrum says. It involves a complex interaction between freezing and thawing of the xylem tissue and the molecule sucrose, which maple trees produce during photosynthesis in the summer and convert to carbohydrates to store energy between seasons.

Sugar maple trees grow as far north as New Brunswick and as far south as Georgia, yet maple syrup is only produced commercially in the most northern states because of the colder weather, Shrum says. In Maine, the season usually starts sometime between the middle of February and the middle of March, and continues for about six weeks.

“Studies are starting to show that the preferred block of time for tapping is starting earlier if you base it on ideal temperatures,” Shrum says, citing a 2010 Cornell University study by Chris Skinner that found that by 2100, the sap season could start a month earlier than it does now. For big-time operations, Shrum says an earlier season probably won’t be a problem, but she’s not sure how smaller Maine operations will adapt.

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Spring 2014

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