Maple Association struggles with dwindling membership

BRATTLEBORO — At the recent annual meeting of the Windham County Maple Association, the very existence of the group was called into question.

But, if the rallying during the business portion of the meeting was any indication, the Windham County Maple Association will survive.

To that end, the group, after holding elections, decided to hold a meeting to make final decisions - and hopefully begin planning for Maplerama 2015 in Windham County. It will take place on Dec. 3 at 6:30 p.m. at the Austine School in Brattleboro. The meeting is open to the public.

Association Delegate Kim Therrien, of Brattleboro's Therrien Sugarhouse, asked attendees if continuing was worth it due to lagging interest among members, decreased state support, and rising insurance costs “just to have a few meetings and be in the cow parade.”

“We're not educating the public, so what's the purpose of this group?” she mused.

With the deadline looming for notifying the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association whether Windham County - slated to host next year's annual Maplerama - would do so, members needed to decide then and there if they wanted to maintain the organization.

Maplerama, a weekend-long festival celebrating Vermont maple syrup, includes tours, food, and entertainment for the general public, and contests and networking for maple sugarers.

Therrien asked the group for ideas on how to increase participation among members, especially around organizing and producing the 2015 Maplerama.

This seemed to rouse the members, as what followed were a number of impassioned speeches in favor of continuing. Although some association members expressed burn-out, elections - and the promise of renewed participation - moved right along.

Read Miller of Dwight Miller & Sons Orchard in Dummerston spoke up first: “If we think we can do [Maplerama], we can do it. I don't doubt we can do this.”

Miller also reminded the group that advocating for themselves, especially with Canada setting so much of the industry standard, could stave against a “race to the bottom.”

“We have to know what's happening to us,” Miller asserted, stressing the importance of knowing how the price for maple syrup is set.

Franklin Geist, who began sugaring in 1967, is the association's former director. He also pushed for self-advocacy.

“Windham County has a say in the state. We have more small sugarmakers here,” he said. “If you don't continue to work together down here, you're lost in the state maple industry. You must be involved in making the rules and regulations or a small majority will hurt us all.”

Larry Lynch, lifelong resident of Dummerston, offered a financial contribution toward producing Maplerama in Windham County.

He also cautioned against the dangers of bureaucracy with a tale from his childhood on a small dairy farm.

Lynch reminisced about the daily ritual of lugging 10-gallon milk cans to the local creamery in Brattleboro. By the 1950s the milk can gave way to the refrigerated bulk tank that the large dairies required farmers to use to keep milk cold before it was picked up a tanker truck.

Lynch said when H.P. Hood sent all the dairy farms a letter saying “no more milk cans,” farmers either bought a bulk tank or got out of dairying.

“It put many small farms out of business,” he said.

Worried about how certification and big-business consolidation could put small maple producers out of business, Lynch also encouraged members to band together for support and advocacy.

“We need to understand who we are and what we have to support ourselves and our industry,” Miller reminded the group. “This name - Vermont maple syrup - was given to us by our forefathers and it's up to us to continue it.”

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