By Luke Furman
Maple syrup researchers in Appalachia find themselves in a sticky situation when it comes to determining accurate figures of each year’s sugary harvest.
As much as 50 percent of Ohio’s maple syrup is produced by the Amish, and they typically do not submit harvest data to the government, said Les Ober, a program director at Ohio State University Extension and maple syrup specialist.
But in addition to the Amish, many of Ohio’s maple syrup producers do not participate in the National Agricultural Statistics Service’s survey every five years, nor any independent or local inquiries. The only state that requires farmers to submit their crop records to NASS is Wisconsin. In 2017, Wisconsin produced 200,000 gallons of maple syrup, according to NASS.
The lack of data from maple syrup producers makes it difficult for states such as Ohio to fully promote the product. That is far different from Quebec, Canada, which produces roughly 70 percent of the world’s maple syrup. The Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers keeps much closer tabs on producers during the harvesting season, inquiring and estimating 11,200,000 gallons of maple syrup in 2017.
Sara Bouvin, a spokesperson for the Federation, said the organization sends out a survey every week to producers who have agreed to fill it out and send it back. Then, a survey at the end of the season reaches 1,000 producers, who have also agreed to fill it out. The Federation then makes estimates from the data.
“There’s always some resistance,” Bouvin said. “With the surveys, we try to reach the same producers each week. Everyone is interested in knowing how much maple syrup there will be.”
Coupled with the lack of voluntary survey participation, many maple syrup producers in Ohio produce no other agricultural products, so they might not even be included on the USDA’s mailing list.
“Some producers say they never got the survey in the mail, so there’s blame on both sides,” Ober said.
In the past five years, the uncertainty of how many producers and how many trees they tapped have led to unreliable and inconsistent estimates of how many gallons of syrup are produced each year.
In 2013, the USDA estimated that Ohio produced 155,000 gallons of maple syrup. In 2016, it estimated only 70,000 gallons. However, experts suggest the number of trees being tapped each year in Ohio is fairly constant at 400,000. The USDA estimates might not indicate a drop in production, merely a drop in reporting. But those lower figures can reduce the amount of grant funding allotted to Ohio’s maple syrup industry.
Dan Brown, the president of the Ohio Maple Producer Association, points to unaccounted producers for causing volatility in reported production data as opposed to changes in the climate or any other factor. He said that every two years in a decade, a warm winter such as the 2016-2017 season will occur, but that’s nothing new or troublesome to seasoned producers.
“Since maple syrup depends more on weather patterns than global temperature, climate change has not had an effect on it,” Brown said
The traditional method of collecting sap requires producers to drill a hole into a maple tree and insert a spile, or hollow tube, that redirects the flow of sap out of the tree. With a vacuum tubing system, producers can expedite the process and produce 10 times the amount of syrup per acre, according to the University of Vermont. With the vacuum tubing system, warm winters now pose little threat of crop loss to Ohio producers.
“Many producers now use a vacuum tubing system, which allows them to get a good crop no matter what the temperature,” Brown said.
In Ohio, the “Maple Belt” runs from Ashtabula County in the northeast, passes though the east-central part of the state and ends at the southwestern border with Kentucky. Ober said producers harvested at least two-thirds of their sap this past year and some farmers even collected a full season’s worth of sap. But, without better reporting from producers, Ober and other industry experts are limited in how they can help — or promote — Ohio’s maple syrup industry.
Brown views the mystery surrounding how much maple syrup Ohio produces each year as a “negative.” He said that one focus of the OMPA is to promote maple syrup and educate those interested in tapping trees. But when maple syrup producers do not report their annual yields, it becomes difficult for the OMPA to promote the industry.
“We don’t have a real handle on how big our industry is,” Brown said. “Many producers sell by the jug instead of selling in bulk, which is difficult to track. It’s a person-to-person exchange.”
Gary Graham, a researcher at Ohio State University Extension specializing in maple syrup, said if Ohio implemented mandatory record keeping like Wisconsin, then the gallons of maple syrup recorded would be “astronomical.”
“It’s an estimate right now and to require knowing who is out there would be helpful. With price trends, getting accurate marks on any kind of data is hard,” Graham said. “An unregistered producer might have 500 taps or 10,000 taps. Every state should have (Wisconsin’s law).”
A total of 70 out of 88 counties in Ohio produce maple syrup, Graham said. He speculated that many producers fail to submit their harvest because, “they think the IRS will be knocking at their doors for taxes.” However, in reality, a larger statewide crop would, in turn, lead to more funding from the federal government to the industry.
Ohio’s dilemma does not cease just southeast of the Ohio River.
Although West Virginia only recently reemerged as a maple syrup state, prompted by the closing of coal mines and factories, the mountainous terrain and high altitudes present an attractive opportunity for harvesting and profit. Experts compared West Virginia to the climates of Ohio and New York State with as many maple trees as Vermont, the nation’s leading producer of maple syrup.
During the harvesting season from January to April, the sap in maple trees freezes and thaws about 22 to 25 times in a good year. In West Virginia the cooler temperatures found up in the forested hills provide a perfect chance to collect maple syrup.
Mike Rechlin, a member of West Virginia’s Board of Directors of Maple Syrup and author of Maple Syrup: An Introduction to the Science of a Forest Treasure, said West Virginia has about as much of a handle on crop statistics as Ohio.
However, unlike Ohio, West Virginia’s Department of Agriculture has greatly promoted the intrastate maple syrup industry and has led a large push to promote West Virginia as a syrup-producing state.
“The department of agriculture has promoted maple syrup because they want people to be able to use and earn from the land,” Rechlin said. “What else can you do with mountains?”
Much like Dan Brown in Ohio, Mike Rechlin spends time educating Mountaineers on the practice of harvesting syrup from the plentiful maple trees.
“We specifically registered to be part of the NASS survey because we thought that would support the industry through grants from the state,” Rechlin said. “People in West Virginia are interested. There’s a learning curve and we are trying to bring knowledge to the people. West Virginia is land-rich but often poor. Anything we can do to help maple syrup production is good for the state.”
Regardless of state lines — or rivers — the maple syrup industry in Appalachia faces the obstacle of being unorganized and disordered.
Official records of sugaring in the Midwest date back to the first agricultural survey in 1840, when Ohio ranked as the leading producer of maple syrup in the nation of 26 states, according to the Ohio Maple Producers Association.
And although technological advances have reached the rural extremes of American homesteads, some experts like Gary Graham claim it will be “impossible” to ever record an accurate number of gallons produced in any maple syrup state other than Wisconsin.
But, if any change is to occur, the push for concise statistics will most likely come from organizations like the Ohio Maple Producers Association and the West Virginia Department of Agriculture, who reach producers on a personal level and instill a sense of community and the responsibility of bookkeeping.
Graham concluded it would take significant effort by groups like the OMPA to raise awareness to reach the full span of Appalachian producers, who will continue to sugar on or off the record.
Photo illustration by Luke Furman with the help of Emily Matthews