Vermont harvested more maple syrup in 2022 than any other year in the state's modern history
The numbers are in: Vermont harvested the most maple syrup in the country this year — and the most in the state’s modern history.
Vermont maple producers collected about 2.5 million gallons of syrup in 2022, according to new data from the U-S Department of Agriculture. That’s an 800,000 gallon increase over 2021.
To recap this year’s sugaring season, VPR's Grace Benninghoff spoke with Mark Isselhardt, a maple specialist with the University of Vermont extension. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Grace Benninghoff: So what's behind the strong sap haul this year?
Mark Isselhardt: Despite all the technological advances that we've seen in the maple industry, weather still has a huge part to play in how much sap is collected in any given year. And it just so happens that 2022 was an excellent year for weather. March was warm enough to see sap flow, but not too warm for many sugar makers. And then April remained relatively cool. And that allowed for a very long season collecting high-quality sap.
Producers collected sap for an average of 40 days this year — compared to 29 days last year. What role does the length of the season play in determining that final syrup yield?
It's not a one-to-one by any means. You can have a relatively short season and number of days and still have a high level of production. What's really important is that you have a good number of critical high-quality sap flow days, which most people will understand to be freezing nights and above freezing days without getting too hot. Excessive and abnormal hot temperatures during the season can really send the season on sort of a downward trend. And we just didn't have that in 2022.
Comparing it to last year, that's a tough one because there were several factors that contributed to below average season. Certainly weather played a part last year, but a large number of producers around Vermont saw below average sap sweetness. And that also has a big part to play in how much syrup you produce at the end of the day.
We know that climate change is shortening winters and making weather patterns less predictable. How is that impacting the sugaring season?
Over the long haul, at least over the last 50 years, we're seeing the trend that the sugaring season — that period of ideal weather for collecting sap — is moving earlier than ever before. So we're seeing sap start to flow on average, maybe about 10% earlier. We're seeing the whole season condensing in terms of duration. But like we just said, the length doesn't always correlate with total production. So we're seeing the season start earlier. We're seeing it end earlier. And overall it's shortening.
But we're seeing yields — the amount of syrup any tap on average produces — going up. And that's due to several factors, including sugar makers adopting more modern sap collection practices, being really good at checking for leaks and the tubing systems and really getting on it when the weather is starting. And not waiting for some traditional date — but actually getting right at it earlier when the weather cooperates.
So I understand that, this year, sap started flowing on New Year's Day. How unusual is that timeframe?
I would say reports of sap flowing on New Year's Day relate to where the industry has evolved. There are still lots of small-scale operations, but we're also seeing some larger operations. And those operations have to start tapping early, many in December or early January.
And we know physiologically, anytime you have a dormant maple tree —that's a tree without leaves on it — if the conditions are right, the tree is thought out a little bit. And if you get that freezing and thawing event to produce positive stem pressure you're going to collect some sap. So I wouldn't say that the Vermont maple season — really the heart of the season — had really started by then, but that some producers were collecting sap that early just because they have to be in the woods getting the 1000s and 1000s of taps they have ready for when the real dense part of sugaring weather arrives.
After down years and 2020 and 2021 — and all the impacts businesses have seen from the pandemic — how important is this year's strong yield for Vermont maple producers?
It's incredibly important. We found that, over the course of the pandemic, demand for maple has gone through the roof. You talk to producers that market their product directly to consumers, or folks who sell in bulk to other businesses that repackage and sell it globally — demand is up over 20%.
And there are explanations for that. I think probably the simplest is maple tastes great. And it's a single-ingredient product. It's not a highly processed sweetener. And although everyone's encouraged to reduce the amount of sugar they consume, this is something they can use to substitute more processed sweeteners in their menu.
And so in that vein, maple syrup production has grown dramatically in Vermont over the last couple decades — from 500,000 gallons in 2003 to more than 2.5 million gallons this year. Do you expect that trend to continue?
Well, I think the pace of growth may not keep keep up. But I do think that we're only tapping, perhaps, 5 to maybe 10% of the potential taps in the state — which for a state as immersed in maple as Vermont is, it's almost hard to believe. But there are a lot of potential taps out there. And it's really going to be driven by consumer demand. If more and more people get a taste of pure maple syrup and understand what it is and how to use it in their daily lives, then I think that demand will increase.
It's still a lot of hard work, though. And I visited over 40 maple operations this spring, and the thing I heard most clearly was it's hard to find folks to do some of this hard work. You know, it's great to sit around the evaporator and have all the steam and the smell, but it's another thing to be tapping and checking leaks on a cold spring day on the side of a mountain in snowshoes. So finding folks who are excited to do this type of work might be a bit of a limit on growth. But Vermonters have found a way to do it in the past, so I think I think that will probably continue.