By: Christine McGowan, Forest Products Program Director

Maple: Vermont’s Agricultural Enterprise in the Forest

Butternut Mountain Farm in Morrisville, Vermont epitomizes both the quaint history and bright future for Vermont’s maple industry. The third generation sugaring operation, now run by siblings Emma and Ira Marvin, stands poised to build on the foundation of botany, forestry and maple syrup production laid by their father and grandfather, to capitalize on growing demand for pure maple syrup.

A Forester’s Approach to Sugaring

Maple is the only significant agricultural product harvested from trees in the wild, making careful forest management vital to the industry. It takes 40 years for maple trees to become productive for tapping so, unlike farmers cultivating seasonal agricultural products, foresters maintaining a sugarbush have to take a long view. A single wind storm like the one that blew through Vermont in the fall of 2017 could have a devastating impact on sugar producers, as lost maples take decades to replace.

David Marvin, Emma and Ira’s father and a forester by training, set to work on the family’s 600 acre tree farm with the intention of creating a diverse forest, resilient to both severe storms and exotic pests. “It’s a delicate balance,” notes Emma. “We need just enough maple trees in the forest– too many and we risk losing forest vitality; too few and we won’t have enough sap.” Today, the forest is mainly maple trees with a healthy smattering of yellow birch, black cherry, beech, white ash, red oak, and aspen. While the Marvins manage their forest for the spring sap, the concentration of maple trees has gorgeous benefits during fall foliage. “The maple industry plays a big part in those iconic Vermont foliage images,” notes Emma.

Innovation in Sap Collection

The family’s enthusiasm for maple began a generation earlier with Dr. James Wallace Marvin, a botanist, who dedicated his life’s work to understanding the flow of sap. New technologies widely recognized for improving both efficiency and output in sap collection– namely plastic tubing and vacuum pumps– have their roots in Dr. Marvin’s research. These innovations, along with reverse osmosis, have changed the way Butternut Mountain Farm manages its forests.

In the early days, most every Vermont farmer had a small sugarbush. March and April were considered down time on the farm, and collecting and boiling sap was a way to keep busy and earn a little extra income. Vermont’s patchwork of sugarbushes was largely independent and very local. Today, plastic tubing extends the geographic reach of sugar makers, allowing them to extend deep into the forest, perhaps even over to that next sugarbush. Vacuum pumps pull sap out of the tree more efficiently, and reverse osmosis technology enables sugar makers to better control the sweetness of the sap. All of this means more sap, and more maple coming from the Green Mountain state.

Adam Tasker boils sap in the Butternut Mountain Farm maple sugarhouse in Johnson. Photo Credit: VSJF/Erica Houskeeper.

A Sweet Spot in Vermont’s Economy

Vermont is the country’s largest maple syrup producer by far. In 2017, Vermont producers made 1.98 million gallons of syrup– more than twice any other state and almost half the entire production of the United States. Vermont’s maple industry contributed more than $300 million to the state’s economy in 2013, supporting between 2,735 and 3,169 full time jobs, according the UVM’s Center for Rural Studies.

Demand for maple and maple products are projected to grow 6.2 percent in the next five years, according to the Global Maple Syrup Market Research Report. Consumers are more aware of added sugars and increasingly discriminating about the source of their ingredients. Once known almost exclusively as a pancake topping, maple syrup is being widely used as a sweetener in everything from baked goods to cocktails. Maple syrup does contain sugar, but it’s minimally processed and contains minerals and antioxidants that offer a healthier alternative to refined sugar. Butternut Mountain Farm will collect sap from more than 25,000 taps this year, and partner with 350 other sugar makers who supply syrup to their operation. With more than 90 employees, hundreds of farmers and thousands of customers, Butternut Mountain Farm has found a sweet spot in Vermont’s forestry landscape.

Vermont Forest Industry Network

Vermont’s forest products industry generates an annual economic output of $1.5 billion and supports 10,000 jobs in forestry, logging, processing, specialty woodworking, construction and wood heating. The new Forest Industry Network creates the space for industry professionals from across the entire supply chain and trade association partners throughout the state to build stronger relationships and collaboration throughout the industry, including helping to promote new and existing markets for Vermont wood products, from high quality furniture to construction material to thermal biomass products such as chips and pellets. Learn more or join at www.vsjf.org.