Quebec is the undisputed world champion of the maple syrup business, but a dramatic rise in production from an upstart state has industry officials casting a wary eye southward.
Quebec's powerful maple syrup producer's federation has hired researchers to find out what is fuelling the rapid growth of the industry in Vermont, where production has more than doubled over 13 years.
Even with that dramatic rise, the United States accounts for only 18 per cent of maple syrup production (Vermont trees tap about 40 per cent of the U.S. share), while Quebec accounts for most of Canada's 82 per cent. Still, the Quebec giant is watching the Vermont growth and looking for clues to the sudden upsurge.
"We've hired people to study the evolution of the market," said Paul Rouillard, an executive with the Quebec maple syrup producer's federation, which acts as an industry marketing board and quality enforcement watchdog. "Last year the U.S. had record production. We don't know if they've tapped more, if they had a couple of exceptional seasons, but we're studying it. We have to find ways to make sure we remain the market leader."
Maple syrup production varies with the weather, but Vermont's three-year average to start the 2000s was 1.6-million litres per year. The past three years ending in 2013 saw the state produce 4.1-million litres.
U.S. experts offer multiple explanations for the growth. The long-term rise in the value of the Canadian dollar, increased taste for maple sweetness, and technological improvements have allowed Vermonters to tap vastly more trees and turn family sugar bushes into full-time jobs.
"Now that the U.S. and Canadian currencies are closer to par, Canadian syrup is more expensive and U.S. producers can get a better price and make a good living," said Timothy Perkins, director of the Proctor Maple Research Centre at the University of Vermont.
Quebec's system of quotas and maple syrup stockpiling through what is known as the "strategic reserve" has helped keep prices high and created a profit margin for U.S. producers, said David Marvin, the owner of Butternut Mountain Farm in northwestern Vermont. "What's a fair price in Quebec is a very favourable price in the United States," he said. "We're definitely tied to what happens in Quebec."
Mr. Rouillard said the price of maple syrup once fluctuated wildly and sat at about $2.75 per kilogram about 10 years ago. Today it sits at a relatively stable $6.28 per kilogram as his federation carefully manages supply. "We made the price interesting for producers in the United States, too," Mr. Rouillard said. "We are a bit of a victim of our own success."
Vermont, like the rest of maple-syrup producing American states, spent the entire 20th century in relentless decline as the tapping of maple trees literally became a cottage industry. Mr. Marvin bought his sugar bush in 1972, when the U.S. industry was nearing all-time lows in production, where it would remain for decades.
"It seemed kind of foolish when I started, but now a lot of people are making a full-time living in the industry," said Mr. Marvin, 66, who taps 16,000 trees on his Vermont farm and owns a processing facility that his two grown children help run.
"I got into it thinking about how I could use worn-out hilly farmland in a way it would be productive and non-consumptive," he said. "I was thinking about forest management. It's been hard but very rewarding."
Much like Quebeckers, Vermonters have a deep attachment to the maple, Mr. Marvin said. "It's perhaps not quite as iconic in that we don't have the leaf on our flag, but we have maple syrup in our blood, I think," he said.
Mr. Marvin said the Vermont expansion has mainly come through longstanding operators like him, who have tapped more trees or obtained more land. A few city folks have also arrived on the scene to try to their hand. There are also loggers and dairy farmers who have shifted over to maple production with its more stable prices and growing demand.
"Fundamentally, where there is a good economic opportunity and resources for agriculture, that's where investment flows," Mr. Marvin said, adding that his one worry is that production could start to grow faster than demand and cause a crash in prices.
But, he said, there is security in the exclusivity of the maple. Only 17 states and provinces in the world produce maple syrup, he said. "We don't have to worry about overproduction in China or Brazil," he said. "This is one of the only ethnic American foods. The world is our oyster."