Slow Year but Sweet Outlook for Syrup Producers

“It’s an unusual site. Not many places in the northeast you’ve got that many maple trees together like that. Plus, I like the view,” described Bruce Bascom, owner of Bascom Maple Farms in Acworth. His great, great grandfather built a sugarhouse on the property in 1853, and it was replaced and upgraded multiple times throughout the 1900s.

Then in the early 90s, Bascom tore everything right down to the ground to build a three-story building with a basement. “This is actually the fourth or fifth sugar house in this location,” he said. On a good day, he can see 60 miles or more, most of it overlooking the Green Mountains. Though it’s a beautiful spot, it’s so out of the way that only those in the syrup business typically frequent it.

On a long, dead-end route, which the town has renamed Sugar House Road, Bascom Maple sits at the top of a steep drive. In winter, farmers in their pickups are about the only ones who come by. “They do their shopping in bad weather when they can’t work in the woods,” Bascom described.

Location plays a big role in the business’ model, which includes both massive syrup production, as well as sales of equipment and supplies. When Bascom was a kid, his parents relied on people buying syrup directly from the farm. “Now we’re 99 percent wholesale,” he said. In the facility, they make approximately 25 percent of the maple syrup that comes out of the state of New Hampshire. “A year ago, we made about 45,000 gallons,” he described.

Despite Bascom Maple’s uniquely dense population of maple trees, they can’t tap nearly enough sap on the property to meet demand. “So we’re buying a substantial amount of everybody else’s,” Bascom explained, including barrels from Vermont and New York.

Though the place was hopping as usual this spring, the crop was actually down. “Last year, across the whole United States, most people had an above-average year,” Bascom said, noting it was the biggest production year since 1940.

However, the frequency of 60-degree days in 2021, offered up a dramatically different picture. The current crop is about two-thirds of what it was last year. Ideally, temperatures would have been in the 20s at night and the 40s during the day.

Luckily, the fluctuating temps did not have a negative impact on taste. “The quality is good; the flavor of the syrup is excellent,” Bascom said. He also reported that despite the smaller crop, there won’t be a shortage nationwide. In Northern Maine and Canada, the weather seems to have been more even, allowing farmers to process more sap.

In addition, Canada has a strategic reserve, which it releases as necessary during down years. Another promising note is that “Overall, the maple industry sales are up year over year on volume, probably by 10 to 15 percent more than the previous year,” Bascom said.

For his business, which reheats and packs syrup in small, retail containers for about 60 to 70 private labels nationwide, it’s an exciting trend, and there’s room to grow. Currently Canada provides the most competition. “Part of the reason the market is so large is that there’s not enough U.S. syrup being made to meet the demand,” Bascom said.

Just about any producer that can add more taps is expanding if they’re not hindered by lack of trees, workers, or time. “That’s pretty much the situation across the whole country,” Bascom said.

Part of the demand is due to the consumer shift toward “real” foods. “Pure maple is slowly expanding in sales and artificial…those are slowly contracting,” Bascom said. Artificial syrups typically contain various chemicals and artificial flavors—“the big, long words that you can’t spell or pronounce,” he laughed.

But pure maple syrup has a very simple advantage. “When people read the back label of pure syrup, all it says is maple syrup,” he described. From homesteaders with a hobby to big-time barrel sellers, maple continues to be a springtime staple in New Hampshire. And while it’s a labor-intensive, high-risk crop, the results are just too sweet to resist.