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Not-for-Profit, Award-Winning Community News and Views for Windham County, Vermont • Since 2006

Setting standards for Vermont maple syrup

Producers look at proposed syrup certification process

A farmer collecting maple sap from wooden buckets in a snow-covered maple grove.

It’s an iconic Vermont image gracing postcards, maple syrup containers, state marketing materials and even the back of the Vermont state quarter.

Despite the iconography, Vermont’s maple industry has evolved and expanded in the last 40 years. First, metal sap buckets replaced wooden ones decades ago, and now food-grade tubing snaking from tree to tree has almost rendered any buckets obsolete.

And in this litigious age, the development of a certification program for farmers wishing to sell their syrup wholesale threatens to render the culture of an autonomous cottage industry to memory.

The Vermont Maple Industry Council (VMIC), an association of maple packers who buy syrup from farmers and sell to consumers, is spearheading a proposed set of certification standards for farmers.

Members of the Windham County Sugar Makers unveiled the standards at their annual meeting last week. No timeline exists to put the program into action, but Arnold Coombs, a seventh-generation maple farmer and a member of VMIC, said most packers wouldn’t purchase syrup from uncertified farmers within the year.

Coombs said it’s not the packers’ intent to force certification, but also “not our intent to hire [quality assurance] staff.”

Vermont’s maple industry contains every size of producer from a family taping enough trees to supply one household to producers with over 25,000 taps supplying syrup to an international market.

Vermont sugarmakers produced 890,000 gallons of syrup in 2010, according to data collected by Coombs, who works as director of sales and marketing for Bascom Maple Farms, of Brattleboro and Alstead, N.H., a leading bulk maple company.

Those gallons equate to 1.43 gallons per Vermonter, the highest-per-capita production in the United States, according to Coombs.

Outside pressures

Coombs said times are changing for the maple sugar industry.

“It’s a CYA world,” said Coombs.

Luckily for Vermont producers, he said, the state stands at the forefront of quality control.

He describes the 1½ pages of proposed criteria as a “pre-emptive strike” against future, less achievable, criteria imposed by agencies without a grasp of sugarmaking. He said it will ensure farmers produce a better product, not change how they make the syrup.

Coombs said recent food-contamination scares, like the E.Coli-covered spinach a couple of years ago, helped push the decision to develop criteria despite the fact maple syrup is not as susceptible to contamination compared to other food products.

According to Coombs, most sugarmakers and packers he’s spoken to want to keep maple syrup producers under the auspices of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture rather than the Vermont Department of Health.

The Agency of Agriculture, he says, remains the appropriate overseer because it understands farmers and sugarmaking better than the Department of Health.

He said the beauty of producing maple syrup is the production method of boiling down the sap and packing the finished syrup at 180 degrees Fahrenheit, a temperature that pasteurizes and kills bacteria.

But, said Coombs, he remains concerned Vermont’s entire sugar industry will get tarred and feathered if one producer’s pump leaks chemicals into the sap lines or a producer uses peanut oil as a “defoamer,” potentially turning the product deadly for someone with allergies.

Defoamers are oils used during the evaporation process to keep sap from boiling over. Producers are expected to stay away from fats containing dairy or nut oils like peanut that contribute to common allergic reactions.

People will point fingers at “Vermont sugarmakers” not “John Doe operator,” said Coombs. Farmers have invested in their sugar operations and don’t need earnings to decrease because of one operator, he said.

“We’re trying to protect the industry from the one or two bad [maple sugar] operators out there,” said Coombs.

Developing certification criteria for producers has ranked as a top issue since the 1990s.

According to Coombs, approximately 50 industry members first tackled the issue at a two-day retreat in Burlington. At the time, there had been problems with one company’s tubing used by sugarmakers to carry sap from tree to collection tank and, sans central certification, the industry lacked “a good way to contact all producers.”

Coombs said the industry waited for the state to take the lead.

It has not. 

According to Tim Wilmot, University of Vermont Extension’s maple specialist, the push is coming primarily from the big packing companies in the state who sell large quantities.

Wilmot said a number of buyers, like General Foods, unfamiliar with the innate sterilization of maple products, expect farmer certification because they’re “used to certification of any food stuff they buy” like meat.

Coombs said most sugarmakers resist the idea of certification until they understand the need.

Developing standards

The writers of the proposed certification based their recommendations on Ontario and Québec’s guidelines.

Coombs said not all of the Canadian requirements (Ontario’s booklet has 200 pages worth) are necessary for quality. Vermont’s 1½ pages of proposed certification focuses on quality control.

Wilmot said the proposed standards are not about dictating to farmers but about being proactive and continuing Vermont’s role as an industry leader. For example, the state advocated using food grade materials in all aspects of maple production before other states.

“It’s a matter of keeping the strong image Vermont has of quality and safety,” said Wilmot.

Wilmot chaired the five-member committee of the VMIC charged with developing and proposing the certification standards currently circulating among producers.

Industry professionals Jacques Couture, Richard Green, Haven King, and Elissa Valentine also served on the certification of maple operators committee. 

Wilmot said the committee would like to see the process in the hands of sugarmakers who understand and can realistically appraise their own industry.

The committee, said Wilmot, developed the standards working from “tree to product” and based the standards on how most sugarmakers produce their wares. He said the majority of Vermont sugarmakers should already qualify under the proposed standards without any, or a few minor, changes.

The packers informed the certification standards, Wilmot said, by suggesting producers incorporate some of the packers’ best practices like adding shatterproof coverings over light fixtures.

The committee also proposed an education program on cleaning agent safety, said Wilmot. Some of the cleaning chemicals used on equipment like the evaporator or reverse osmosis machine need to be properly flushed from the machinery before use and then safely stored or disposed of afterwards.

Wilmot said the proposed certification is not a license.

Wilmot said the committee fulfilled its charge once it developed the standards and does not want to dictate to the farmers, leaving it up to the packers to initially discuss the process with farmers and buyers.

“It’s a process we feel it’s time to move along,” said Wilmot.

Wilmot also feels present and general food safety worries have pushed the desire for certification standards.

For example, organic maple syrup is no different in quality, he said, from regular maple syrup, but some people feel buying organic is necessary.

Wilmot has not heard individual consumers express food-safety fears about maple syrup, but buyers, like grocery stores, are applying pressure to the packers.

“This isn’t going to happen overnight,” said Wilmot.

Many details still need ironing out like who will conduct the farm inspections, the timeline, and the hows of program funding.

Wilmot feels certification will be less of a cultural shift for farmers than people expect. Some farmers already go through processes like the Northeast Organic Farming Association’s certification of organic farmers or the Vermont seal of quality, discontinued in March.

Packers have told Wilmot that they want maple producers of all sizes to obtain certification because they want to retain current customers and not simply purchase from the big growers.

The next step will be communicating with sugarmakers and helping them understand the necessity for certification.

“We’re not trying to hit them over the head with anything,” said Coombs.

If farmers chose not to become certified, they could still sell syrup direct to consumers but, ultimately, packers won’t want to buy from uncertified farmers, said Coombs.

From tree to table

Broadly speaking, maple syrup must pass through three levels to get to consumers.

In the first stage, farms collect maple sap and boil 40 gallons to create a gallon of syrup.

Maple-sugar companies like Bascom, Maple Grove or Butternut Mountain Farm, called packers, then buy the syrup in bulk, bottle it, and sell it (and other maple products) to retailers, comprise stage two.

In the third stage, grocers and other merchants buy maple products from packers to sell to consumers either directly, or to use as ingredients in other food products.

Large grocery stores, said Coombs, already inspect packers and refuse to buy from uncertified companies. As a result, maple syrup products come with pedigree-worthy allotment numbers, providing a tracking system for each bottle in the event of contamination.

Coombs said so far, grocery chains have accepted sugarmakers’ lack of certification. But, he said, “it’s only a matter of time” before the grocery chains stop accepting maple products that originate from uncertified farmers.

“Because that store won’t put themselves on the line for some farmer in Vermont. We don’t want to be caught blindsided,” Coombs said.  

Internationally, standards are tough for maple syrup. Coombs is working on a deal with an Australian grocery chain with so many quality-control requirements that it employs 50 people.

“Try reasoning with a lawyer,” said Coombs.

Currently, UVM Extension and the Vermont Maple Sugar Association, founded in 1893, offer three yearly sugarmaking seminars, but Vermont has no requirements for sugarmakers looking to make and sell syrup.

And Coombs feels this lack of certification shows in less-than-stellar products on the market. He points to the International Maple Sugar Institute, based in Ontario, which disqualifies 40 percent of the syrup entered into its annual competition.

“And that’s supposedly the best of the best,” said Coombs.

Moving too fast?

Coombs estimates two to three years before the certification process is up and running. But, some industry professionals say, “Slow down.”

Bruce Bascom, the head of Bascom Maple Farms, hopes the industry will move slowly on the certification standards, allowing the process to evolve over years.

Maple syrup, said Bascom, is one of the few food products falling under state jurisdiction, not federal Food and Drug Administration inspections, because it tends to be viewed as a cottage-industry product.

People are unlikely to get ill from maple products, said Bascom. The boiling process sterilizes syrup and anything that could fall into it, like wood chips from the boiler, he said. The filtration process removes these foreign objects and, even after the syrup has sat stored in bulk containers, it is heat-packed and thus sterilized again.

If syrup should ever ferment, a re-boil and filter will put it right again.

“The beauty of maple is even if you do it wrong, it still doesn’t harm you despite your incompetence,” said Bascom.

Bascom understands the move is a pre-emptive one to keep the industry out of the federal jurisdiction. Still, he has concerns about what will happen “if this thing is pushed through without thought.”

Bascom feels questions need answering: Who will conduct inspections? What about the micro-producers? Most inspectors with strapped-resources don’t feel the small guys are worth the effort. Bascom predicts that only the levying of fees against the farmers will compensate inspectors.

Bascom described the program as well intended but one that “needs to get thrashed out,” pointing to Vermont’s five-year phase-out of galvanized storage barrels as a good process.

Vermont may risk isolating its producers if the program is forced through because it will be easer to buy from New York, New Hampshire, Maine or Canadian producers, said Bascom.

Right now, he said, Bascom Maple Farms requires producers to sign a paper saying they’ve met certain requirements in a form of self-certification process he’s happy with.

Bascom agrees a decentralized state-controlled approach is better.

U.S. Customs agents recently locked down a load of Maine syrup sent to Bascom’s, he said, because the truck passed through Canada on its way from Maine to New Hampshire. The customs office in Boston sent a fish inspector to check the syrup barrels.

Bascom showed the inspector how to open and test the syrup and then waited a month before customs released the load.

If Vermont or New Hampshire had sent an agricultural inspector familiar with maple products, things would have gone more smoothly, said Bascom.

Sugaring season

Coombs said certification will create one more selling advantage over uncertified states, because it signals buyers “we take care” of maple products.

“It will be a big positive [in the end],” said Coombs.

Coombs said there’s no denying that previously autonomous farmers will need to make a culture shift. For the industry to continue expanding, said Coombs, farmers will need to continue to modernize.

But the maple industry has grown to where farmers can focus on one product and make a living — something unheard of 40 years ago, Coombs said. He hopes a certification process will allow more farmers to thrive economically and the program will protect everyone.

“We don’t want to force heavy rules on any sugarmaker,” said Coombs.

The certification standards may change as the project moves forward, said Wilmot. Prior to January’s Maple Congresses, Coombs will write a piece for the industry newsletter explaining the issue to farmers and listing the certification standards.

“A lot of this is a matter of getting people comfortable with and understanding why certification may be necessary,” said Wilmot.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #76 (Wednesday, November 17, 2010).

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