3/22/2014 7:00 AM
By Sharon Kitchens Maine Correspondent
GORHAM, Maine — Lyle Merrifield, president of Maine Maple Producers Association and a first-generation maple producer, is optimistic about this year’s maple season. While some have complained about all of the snowfall this winter, Merrifield sees snow as a natural insulator that maple trees rely on during sugaring season to help protect their roots from freezing.
Merrifield, a midsize producer, began tapping 680 trees in February and estimates the farm will produce 150-180 gallons of maple syrup this year. With the help of his nephews, he boils sap four or five days a week through at least the middle of March to get ready for Maine Maple Sunday weekend, which will be held today and tomorrow as sugarhouses all over the state open their doors to the public in celebration of the state’s maple heritage.
The farm, located at 195 N. Gorham Road in Gorham, sells the bulk of its maple products during Maine Maple Sunday weekend.
According to the USDA, U.S. maple syrup production in 2013 totaled 3.25 million gallons, up 70 percent from 2012. Maine is the third largest maple producing state after Vermont and New York, pulling in 14 percent — 450,000 gallons — of the overall total last year.
Merrifield thinks Maine could be ranked higher, but is not since some producers do not report their numbers. He believes the maple industry is the fastest growing commercial agricultural practice in the state, and he attributes this to the number of new licenses issued in the state, the amount of syrup sold by producers and an increase in the amount of sugaring equipment sold by dealers.
Merrifield’s association puts on the now annual Maple Mania — last year it was held in June — a three-day event with demonstrations, producer workshops, technical sessions, equipment displays and tours to interest anyone involved in maple, from the backyard producers to the largest producers, packers and wholesalers. For those who want more information, the University of Maine Cooperative Extension holds workshops on learning to tap maple trees and make maple syrup, and has a website meant to help novices get started.
Merrifield said the association is talking about branding Maine maple syrup with a new logo and a program all of the state’s producers would participate in.
“If you ask someone, What do you think of when you think of Vermont?’ They say, syrup,’” he said. “If you say, What do you think of in Maine?’ They are going to say lobsters, blueberries, potatoes.’ We need to get into that market somehow.”
Maine and other maple-producing states and the Canadian provinces are expected to soon adopt international standards for maple syrup grading. Based on what has been proposed, there will be a grading standard for maple syrup based on color and flavor profiles. Grade A would include four classifications: golden color, delicate taste; amber color, rich taste; dark color, robust taste; and very dark color, strong taste. There will also be a processing grade.
Since January 1980, maple syrup has been graded according to the Canadian, United States or Vermont standards based on its density and translucency. As a promotion and marketing organization made up of U.S. and Canadian producers and processors, the International Maple Syrup Institute’s primary impetus for changing the grades is to alleviate consumer confusion about the difference between the grades and have continuity for export markets.
The new maple grading system was signed into law in Maine on May 22, 2013. However, it does not take effect until the USDA, IMSI and the federal government of Canada have officially adopted the new international system and sent written notice to the Maine Legislature.
“I expect this process to be very efficient and timely once the USDA and the international institute notifications are in place,” said Ronald E. Dyer, director of the division of quality assurance and regulations with the Maine Department of Agriculture Conservation & Forestry.
Dyer said Maine’s maple producers will be allowed to use their existing labels and that his staff will work with producers to phase in the new labels. Consumers should begin to see the new labels as early as the end of this year or the beginning of 2015.
Merrifield thinks the new grading system will be good for Maine’s maple producers because it will allow them to sell very dark-colored maple. He believes most producers in Maine are positive about the new grade changes.