Play a word association game outside of New England and use “maple syrup” as the prompt. The response likely would be “Vermont.”
Maine producers are hoping to turn that around by creating a powerful, recognizable identity for Maine maple syrup, an annual $3 million industry. Even though Vermont is the largest consumer of Maine syrup and Maine is No. 2 behind Vermont in syrup production, Maine’s identity as a maple state slowly is being acknowledged, according to a state agriculture official.
That, in large part, is because of more aggressive and innovative marketing by the producers, industry associations and the Maine Department of Agriculture, according to Deanne Herman, who works in the department’s marketing division. At the same time, however, the price Maine producers are paid for their rich, amber syrup hasn’t caught up with the state’s growing reputation for producing a quality product.
“Most of Maine’s 200,000 gallons of syrup is produced in Somerset County,” said Herman, and is sold in bulk by the barrel. According to statistics provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for 2001, Maine producers were paid an average of $15 a gallon for bulk syrup. Vermont got $31.50, New Hampshire got $39, and Connecticut producers were paid a whopping $45 per gallon – three times what Maine tappers received.
“We get the lowest price of any state for our syrup,” she said, blaming the lack of a marketable image for Maine syrup.
“Our syrup doesn’t have a specific identity,” she said.
Ironically, bulk syrup often is sold to New Hampshire and Vermont, two states that have built a large, identifiable market. Herman said most of the bulk syrup is going to just a handful of buyers, who repackage the syrup and sell it under their own labels. Maine’s identity is lost in the process.
“The challenge for the industry in Maine is to raise the value of the syrup by linking Maine’s name and reputation with it,” said Herman.
To that end, the maple industry is researching where the state’s syrup is sold and the potential of the market potential.
Eric Ellis of Madison just stepped down as president of the Maine Maple Products Association to spearhead this research. “Basically, we need to determine whether it is worthwhile for us to work on marketing the Maine syrup identity,” he said.
“When it is sold by the drum, it loses its identity. It is no longer Maine syrup, but just syrup,” said Ellis.
By determining who the end consumer of Maine syrup is, Ellis hopes to add value to syrup prices by possibly eliminating the middleman and marketing directly to the consumer.
Meanwhile, although recognizing that most Maine maple syrup is shipped out of state in bulk, innovative local producers are finding ways to sell their finished product on the retail market to raise profits and to build Maine’s identity.
Deb and Perry Meehan of Rockport launched a new marketing technique about four years ago, which has elevated maple syrup from the shelves at the local grocery store to displays at high-end gift stores.
The Meehans became aware that the beautiful range of amber-colored syrups was being hidden in decorative tins that traditionally have been used to market the syrup. “We began to experiment with glass packaging and have elevated syrup now to a gift item,” Deb Meehan said.
The couple, who sell from a retail store on Route 1 in Rockport, through mail-order catalogs and from their Web site, are having great success with the glass containers.
Marketed under the trade name “Maine Gold,” the Meehans’ products are packaged in imported Italian glass containers that highlight the four rich shades of Grade A syrup. “We sell the four colors in a special package and recommend sipping ginger ale and then tasting each color,” Deb Meehan said. “It becomes almost like wine tasting. An event.”
The glass containers, in a variety of shapes, are sold internationally from Turkey to Europe to Japan, she said.
Many other Maine producers have followed suit and are packaging their own syrup in the glass containers.
In Skowhegan, John Steeves is marketing his products with a seal of certification from the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. Adding the organic designation to his syrup, candy and maple cream allows Steeves to tap into the lucrative and growing organic market while getting a higher price for his products.
In 1984, Steeves also hatched the idea of Maine Maple Sunday, an annual event held on the last Sunday in March when sugarhouse and sugarbush owners open their operations to the public. Steeves said he and three other maple syrup producers were sitting around his Skowhegan living room talking about letting visitors experience the sugarbush operations when the thought struck them. “We were all doing the same thing individually so we decided to have a special Sunday. It has become a very nice thing,” he said.
Herman said it has become more than just a nice afternoon, and is now a vital marketing tool for maple syrup. “Maine Maple Sunday is known internationally,” she said. Both New York and Vermont have copied the idea, patterning their celebrations after Maine’s success.
This year, Maine Maple Sunday will be March 24 when 71 producers around the state will open their sugarhouses for the public to see firsthand how it takes 40 gallons of sugar maple sap to make 1 gallon of syrup. Most sugarhouses offer free tastings and live demonstrations of how syrup is produced, from tap to table.
Many offer other treats and activities, including syrup on pancakes or ice cream, sugarbush tours, sleigh or wagon rides and lots more. A full listing of participating operations can be found by visiting the Maine Department of Agriculture’s Get Real, Get Maine Web site at www.getrealmaine.com and clicking on Maine Maple Sunday. The list also will be published in next Thursday’s Calendar section of the Bangor Daily News.
The season for tapping maple trees lasts about four to six weeks. Warm, sunny spring days above 40 degrees and frosty nights are ideal for sap flow. The season ends when the nights are warmer and the trees begin to develop buds. “Once the trees bud, the sap becomes bitter,” said Meehan.
Steeves said the sap was running so well earlier this year that “we got through tapping and didn’t have time to eat lunch before the sap began running.” As of this week, most producers are reporting a good season.
“This should be a wonderful spring to celebrate,” he said.