...And Bruce Bascom Builds a Maple Empire

8/16/2010 9:45 AM
By Steve Taylor

His Mother s Tears Go Unheeded...

...And Bruce Bascom Builds a Maple Empire

Steve Taylor

New England Correspondent

ACWORTH, N.H. Bruce Bascom s mother wept and pleaded with him to change his mind when he told her he was coming home to work alongside his father on the family farm. He was soon to graduate with a business management degree from the University of New Hampshire, and she was hoping for him to go off to the riches and comfort of the corporate world.

But Bascom did return home to the farm and in the 35-plus years since, he has steered the enterprise into a virtual maple conglomerate that includes a 68,000-tap syrup arm, sophisticated processing and packing facilities, product distribution, equipment sales and syrup brokerage. On top of all that, he s recognized as one of the foremost authorities on maple marketing and economics in the U.S.

He has definitely earned induction into the Maple Hall of Fame, the industry shrine in Croghan, N.Y., where he joins his late father, Ken, forming one of only three father-son combinations among the industry stalwarts recognized by the institution.

When Bascom and his new wife, Liz, came back to the farm after graduating from UNH the operation had a 5,000-bucket sugaring setup, and sold 35,000 square bales of hay and 250 cords of firewood a year. The pressure was on to expand and modernize in order to support two families, and changes were soon underway.

First was introduction of vacuum technology in 1973 and then a reverse osmosis rig the first in the industry in 1975. The number of taps increased every year, a pattern that continues to this day. A pancake house and activities geared for tourist groups were a key part of the operation for several years, but they were abandoned when production had grown so extensive that it required complete attention to farm management.

Currently the farm includes 2,300 owned acres plus 2,000 additional acres rented from other landowners. A 350-cow dairy setup on part of the land is leased out. All of the forest land is managed according to a silvicultural plan for sustainability and protection of the health of the maple trees.

Bascom has owned several companies engaged in various maple activities, including U.S. Maple Tubing, Vermont Sugarhouse and Saltash Mountain Sugarhouse, and he is a part owner of Leader Evaporator of Swanton, Vt., the nation s biggest maple equipment manufacturer. He is the largest dealer in maple equipment and supplies in the U.S., representing numerous manufacturers, and he buys and sells used equipment of every description. He also maintains a huge collection of maple sugaring artifacts, some of which are 200 or more years old.

The vast majority of Bascom s equipment customers are non-farmers, he notes, although many of these people are within a generation or two of farm life.

As the Bascom Maple Farms operation has grown, its building footprint has expanded steadily as well. From a small rustic sugarhouse in the 1970s it has become a sprawling complex of processing and packing spaces, warehouses, retail showrooms, offices and syrup storage silos. A 45,000-square-foot refrigerated warehouse building is currently under construction to meet additional space demands of the constantly growing business.

The operation has five packing lines and a team of 52 employees to fill thousands of syrup containers daily for customers throughout the U.S. and abroad. The Bascom sales division operates from offices in Brattleboro, Vt. Branded products are marketed under various names including Brown Family Farms, VT Gold and Coombs Farms.

Bascom buys thousands of drums of syrup from producers in every maple state and Canadian province, and will even purchase a five-gallon container of product brought in by a youngster with just a woodshed setup. A substantial portion of purchased syrup is made into candy and granulated sugar, which is marketed to the meat-processing and confectionary trades. Production from Bascom s own taps was over 22,000 gallons this year.

Viewing the direction of the North American maple industry, Bascom worries that the recent dramatic increase in number of taps in the U.S. portends trouble down the road.

The past three or four years we ve been expanding 12 to 15 percent in a single year. I think for the next five years it will continue to be economically viable to make syrup, even if that rate of expansion continues, but beyond that I don t know, he says.

The U.S. maple industry in 1880 was five times bigger than what it is today. By 1970 it was bottoming out, and would probably have disappeared if the technology of tubing, vacuum and reverse osmosis hadn t come along. Up to that point it was a hugely labor-intensive and inefficient business and probably would have vanished.

Expansion of the U.S. maple industry is being helped greatly by the marketing order-quota system imposed on Quebec producers, which effectively establishes a floor price for American syrup and restrains dramatic expansion north of the border.

The U.S. will probably double its production in the next 10 years through more taps and advancing technology. But still, it s hard to believe that there are a lot of producers out there that haven t adopted any of the technology that s been around for more than 30 years now, Bascom says.

Syrup sales are a little soft right now, which makes me ask if it will be possible to sell all the extra syrup that s going to be made. Maybe, but the big runup in prices of the last five years is unlikely to continue. We ll need to maintain the economic health of the industry with more syrup per tap and greater efficiency, he concludes.

Does milk have a lot of untapped potential in today’s competitive beverage market?

  • Yes
  • No
  • Unsure

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