When talking about Vermont's maple syrup industry, the quaint sugar shack with steam rising from the gables and sap dripping into buckets often comes to mind. But the industry has come a long way from when David Marvin first began boiling sap on his kitchen stove in the 1970s.
"Our small business here impacts over 100,000 acres of Vermont working landscape. There are 300-plus farms and all the people connected to those farms who depend on us-- we depend on them. It's a lot bigger deal than it used to be," said David Marvin of Butternut Mountain Farm.
Butternut Mountain Farm in Morrisville has grown to become a major producer and distributor of maple products in the region, purchasing nearly one half of the Vermont crop. And this year, by all accounts, was a great crop with some estimates of upward of 1.3 million gallons.
"I think 2013 will be the biggest crop in modern time," Marvin said. "It's a big crop in Vermont, particularly in the warmer areas. It's a very big crop in Quebec and much of the upper Midwest had a short season, but a very good season, so people are either happy or very happy."
About 250,000 gallons of the sweet stuff are stored in the company's giant warehouse.
"There's some Maine in here and a little bit of Quebec from last year, but basically it's Vermont syrup in here. This is from our farm," Marvin said.
But with such a productive season, don't expect the laws of supply and demand to apply. In an effort to stabilize producer prices, the industry has come to rely on producers in Canada-- where most syrup is made-- to set the price by controlling inventory. They do that with the "strategic maple syrup reserve."
"We call it the bank," Marvin said.
"Now, with the federation keeping some of their syrup in a strategic storage, they're not putting as much on the market, so they're holding the price up. On the other hand, Vermont syrup and domestic syrup is in great demand," said Henry Marckres of the Vt. Agency of Agriculture.
The strategic syrup reserve made headlines last year after $20 million in syrup was swiped from a Quebec warehouse, some of which eventually made its way down to a St. Johnsbury distributor. Dozens of Canadians were arrested. The Vermont connection remains under investigation.
"A $20 million theft is a huge deal and it hurt us here a lot," Marvin said. "We know where our syrup comes from. There's a name and a face in every bottle, and to have to compete with inexpensive syrup that was sold cheaply because it was stolen-- that made a very difficult 2012 for Butternut Mountain Farm."
Despite the risks of syrup becoming something of a black market commodity, Marvin says price stability under the Canadian cartel is a major benefit.
"This is really about an agricultural commodity that's really susceptible to the weather and it's about finding a way to allow producers to have a sustained income they can feel comfortable with," Marvin said.
The unusual economic landscape of Vermont's maple industry.
State agriculture officials say they expect to see the number of taps continue to rise and that there appears to be no ceiling on market demand for the foreseeable future.
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