It's official: Vermont is maple capital of USA
STARKSBORO — For skiers and boarders, the beginning of 2016 was dismal. Temperatures were high and snowfall was low. Ski resorts suffered, along with local economies. But every coin has a flip side, and for one industry, the weather was sweet.
Vermont’s maple syrup producers broke records this year churning out a total of 1.99 million gallons of the sweet delicacy, according to a report released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture this summer. The Green Mountain State now produces over 47 percent of the nation’s maple syrup — a higher percentage than ever before, and more than double any other state.
“We had phenomenal runs this year,” said Bill Heffernan, founder of Heffernan Family Sugarworks in Starksboro.
Heffernan, along with his wife, Julie, and son, Brian, started producing syrup in 2006 and has since become one of the top producers in Addison County.
His business produced 19,000 gallons of syrup from 32,000 taps this year — think four tractor-trailers full of 40-gallon barrels — their largest yield yet. The season, which began in February, was also longer than usual.
To the dismay of all snow lovers, Heffernan said this year’s astounding level of production came from ideal weather conditions. The greatest yield, he said, occurs when temperatures dip below freezing at night and rise to around 40 degrees during the day. The sap gushes even more if nighttime temperatures occasionally stay above freezing.
With this winter’s temperatures hovering above the norm, conditions were Goldilocks-approved.
The Heffernans’ system is standard as far as sugarhouses go. The taps are hooked up to vacuum tubing, which draws the sap out of the trees. The sap drains into five 8,000-gallon stainless steel tanks. Then, the sticky liquid is transferred to a reverse osmosis (RO) machine that takes water out of the sap. It processes sap at a rate of 175 gallons per hour, and increases the percentage of sugar in the sap from 2 to 10 percent.
The RO machine, he noted, cost more than his first house.
Finally, the sap is boiled down into syrup. One day this winter, Heffernan and his son arrived at the sugarhouse to find that the steel tanks were brimming to the top with nearly 40,000 gallons of sap.
“It was incredible,” he said. “We’ve never seen anything like it.”
With maple syrup selling at $27.50 per pound, the Heffernans saw reward for their labor, though not without setbacks. This year’s total electricity bill amounted to $17,000, mostly because of added fees that were tacked on when the facilities exceeded the amount of allowed use in one day. Next year, Heffernan said, they will have to be much more cautious about electricity.
And, aside from through-the-roof production costs, the Heffernans, like other maple sugar producers, are at risk from another looming danger: climate change.
A recent study performed by researchers at UVM and the State University of New York (SUNY) concluded that climate change will alter the maple industry, and it assessed whether producers are preparing. Though 42 percent of survey respondents aren’t concerned about climate change, the rest worry about everything from weather damage to season timing to reduced sap flow.
Heffernan, who says the company plans to expand to 60,000 taps in the coming years, is concerned.
“We do consider climate change to be a major factor in the coming decade,” he said.
Chiefly he is worried about how the changing climate will affect the health of the trees, and Heffernan is taking steps to safeguard them.
“We only put one tap per tree regardless of the size of the tree,” he said. “We thin our woods to allow for bigger crowns, and we reduced the size of our taps. We also replace the taps every year so that we are not putting a tap in a tree that might have bacteria on it.”
He also worries that insects, which can survive mild winters in larger numbers, could harm the trees.
“This year, parts of the state were affected by caterpillars, and there is always the threat of the Asian long-horned beetle,” he said. “It seems like there is always something to worry about.”
For now, though, the family can sit back and enjoy their spoils. Most of their syrup is sold to Butternut Mountain Farm and Bascom Maple Farms, but they’ve kept a few hundred gallons, mostly for Heffernan to sell in his office at Champlain Valley Plumbing and Heating in Middlebury.
They also keep some for themselves. The Heffernan family is experimental with their syrup — Bill says Julie often makes maple whoopee pies and even maple Jell-O. His favorite, he says, is vanilla ice cream with maple sugar on top: simple and sweet.