Most people involved with the maple syrup business in New York state agree the vast maple tree population here is underused.
Less than half of a percent of the state's maple trees are tapped for use. The Canadian province of Quebec, by far the world's largest producer of maple syrup, taps about one-third of its trees, even though it has 200 million fewer trees than New York. Add in the fact that 73 percent of New York's trees are on privately owned land, ready to be tapped at any moment, and one can see how the state economy would improve if those valuable trees were used.
Legislation was recently introduced in an attempt to further develop the industry in New York. Bills sponsored by U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and U.S. Rep. John McHugh, R-Pierrepont Manor, in their respective legislative bodies, direct the U.S. Department of Agriculture to establish a grant program that would authorize $20 million annually, according to a news release. State and tribal governments could apply for grants to design and implement programs that would encourage landowners to provide access to their maple trees, the release said.
The Leader-Herald/Bill Trojan
Steve Savage, the owner of Peaceful Valley Maple Farms in Johnstown, places wood into the furnace at the
bottom of the evaporator at his business Monday.
The Leader-Herald/Bill Trojan
Steve Savage, the owner of Peaceful Valley Maple Farms in Johnstown,drills a hole into a maple tree to tap for sap outside his business.
The Capital Region, as a whole, contains about 40 million trees that could be tapped, according to the release. About 0.57 percent of those are tapped. The North Country contains about 82 million trees and about 0.67 percent of those are tapped.
In putting forward the bill, Schumer said he hopes to increase production from the state's 289 million maple trees. Max Young, a spokesman for Schumer, called it "silly" for the state to import so much maple syrup when so much is right under its nose.
"It's a combination of both alerting people and incentivizing people," Young said of the bill. "There's no downside. There aren't a ton of places in the country that would be able to do it."
Because of this, Young said, the state stands to gain more than many other states across the country from the passage of the legislation. Maple syrup producing states such as Vermont, Maine, and even Michigan, could benefit.
A spirit of buying local syrup already exists among local sugarmakers. Vern Duesler, the owner of Mud Road Sugar House in Ephratah, said if he runs out of syrup from his farm he tries "to buy it right here in New York state from other producers."
New York State Maple Producers Association President David Campbell said it is unknown how the bill might help local sugarmakers, and it was too early to get truly excited about the legislation.
"There's no details on how that money will be used, and we still don't know if it will be approved," he said.
Maple syrup prices have risen over the last few years. Young said Europeans are using the sticky substance as a natural sweetener more than they used to.
Wholesale prices are set at the end of the roughly six-week season, which begins in early March and often carries on through April.
Canadian producers drive the market because they tap so many trees. Their poor season caused prices to go up everywhere last year, even though New York produced 322,000 gallons of syrup in 2008, up from 224,000 the year before.
New York State Maple Producers Association Executive Director Mary Jeanne Packer said the price of maple syrup hovered around $2.80 per pound in 2007, but rose to about $4 per pound in 2008.
Officials expressed optimism this year's wholesale prices will be steady.
"I'm guessing they're probably not going to go up any," said Campbell. "They'll probably be stable with where they've been, unless there is a poor season."
If that were to happen, Campbell said, prices could go up.
However, local sugarmakers, such as Steve Savage of Johnstown's Peaceful Valley Maple Farms, said their season has gotten off to a good start.
Savage said his retail prices from last season have stayed the same.
While the Schumer bill focuses on encouraging use of the 73 percent of the state's maple trees on private land, some within the industry say it is important to consider ways to tap trees on public land.
Dave McComb, who runs McComb's Oak Hill Farm in Speculator with his wife, Karen, and taps about 1,500 trees, said he thinks trees on public land will continue to be underused because state-owned land within the Adirondack Park is heavily regulated.
"The tree huggers are really over the edge here at utilizing the land," he said. "I do believe it would be resisted. Ideally, they'd like to lock it up, I believe."
Campbell said his association has been attempting to work with the state Department of Environmental Conservation for about four years to enable maple trees on public land to be tapped. Legislation has already been passed allowing that to happen. But in order to allow money-making sap to run from the trees, the land on which they stand needs to be leased to the private sector.
Efforts to finalize such a process have proven unfruitful.
"They just don't have the rules in place to lease them to a maple producer," Campbell said.
Still, local residents hold out hope the state will be smarter about tapping its trees. Its ability to do so, some said, would be a revenue booster for the state's economy, and the Schumer-McHugh bill could be one way to encourage that.
"If New York tapped all its available resources, I do believe it would be the biggest producer in the United States of America," McComb said.
Zach Subar covers rural Fulton County and southern Hamilton County news. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org