LENOX – Bill and Elaine Markham built their current sugar shack on New Lenox Road 40 years ago, but their roots in maple sugar making go back much further.
Elaine’s father ran his own sugar farm when she was a child. Three years before their current facility at Mill Brook Sugarhouse was built, the Markhams were making a batch of maple sugar “on that hearth in front of those apple trees,” Bill says, pointing to a window.
Sugar can be a finicky business. It often depends on the vagaries of the weather – warm days and cold nights create ideal sugaring conditions – which have been affected by climate change and more recently there have been supply chain disruptions. The Markhams have seen it all.
“In this kind of business,” Elaine said, “there’s always a hiccup.”
Elaine is specifically referring to a pump that broke earlier today, but her comment could also have been about the supply chain shortages that began to affect the sugar industry last year, during the pandemic. of COVID-19, which continued in 2022. .
“They’ve been terrible,” said Carla Turner, who together with her husband, Paul, run Turner Farms Maple Syrup in South Egremont, on her husband’s family dairy farm. The company is in its 38th year.
“Throughout this pandemic, there have been supply chain issues,” she said. “I never thought of myself as a hoarder, but because of that, I think I have become one.”
Turner refers to the difficulty local maple sugar producers have had this year packaging their products, due to shortages of glass and plastic containers.
“We package both plastic and glass,” Turner said. “A year ago in June we couldn’t get some glasses; some, but not all. And then we couldn’t get plastic. I knew what we had to get, so I amassed so much glass as possible. maybe get.”
Soaring oil prices, exacerbated by the war in Ukraine and the US decision to ban oil imports from Russia, could also affect prices, driving up packaging costs.
“You have to realize that all plastic is made from petroleum,” Turner said, adding that she expects her packaging costs to rise 35% this year.
Turner got extra plastic containers just before Christmas, but she said problems with the packaging of maple syrup products are expected to persist.
“We just found out through the industry that we’re going to have maybe, maybe two years or even a year and a half before they can get us new containers,” she said. declared. “At this point we can only get jugs without labeling.”
It’s a test for the Turners, who have 4,000 taps and try to produce up to 1,000 gallons of maple syrup each year.
“The [U.S. Department of Agriculture] says because of the amount of syrup we sell, we have to have labeling, we have to have addresses,” Turner said. ” So the [unlabeled] jug won’t work for us.”
Winton Pitcoff, coordinator of the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association in Worcester, said getting pitchers this year is “definitely a challenge” and the 1947-founded nonprofit has tried to alleviate that problem by buying bulk containers for its approximately 250 members.
“It kinda resolved itself,” he said. “It started out as a plastics issue but became more of a labor issue for our supplier in that they can make the jugs but don’t have the staff to do the art they need. need, screen printing on the jugs. So, we’ve supplemented with blank jugs and labels you can put on. But it’s definitely an ongoing problem.
With or without pitchers, sugaring is big business in Massachusetts. This is especially true in Western Massachusetts, where 80% of the state’s maple sugar producers are located west of Interstate 91, according to the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association. Sugar farming in Massachusetts began before the Pilgrims landed in 1620 – Native Americans taught the process to early settlers. The industry currently employs 1,000 agricultural workers statewide and is worth more than $5 million to farmers in the state.
The state has 320,000 taps of maple syrup, according to Pitcoff, who estimates annual maple sugar production in Massachusetts at about 70,000 gallons. Exact numbers aren’t available since 2019, Pitcoff said, because that’s the year budget cuts and deficits caused the USDA’s Agricultural Statistics Service to limit tracking those numbers to the seven lowest states. largest producers in the country (Massachusetts is ranked ninth).
The Turners aren’t the only maple producers in Berkshire County to try to get the sugaring season off to an early start this year.
“Supply and demand is always a big challenge at all levels, whether you’re into maple syrup or whatever,” said Missy Leab, who runs the sugar operation at Ioka Valley Farm in Hancock with her husband, Donald. The Leabs, which started their operation with 13 taps in 1992, produce about 8,000 gallons of maple syrup per year in “good years”.
“We all try to problem-solve, prepare and plan for what we might need,” she said. “Anticipating what we might need, we started placing orders over the summer.
“We’re very optimistic it’s going to be a good year, based on the first boils we’ve had,” she added.
Boiling is the process that turns the sap that sugar producers source from sugar maple trees into syrup. It is performed in a large vat-like machine called an evaporator and usually takes place in a sugar shack. The Markhams were boiling sap in their sugar shack on Monday.
Mill Brook Sugarhouse, which operates 1,300 taps at three locations, had its best year last year, producing 442 gallons of maple syrup. The Markhams hope to produce 550 to 600 gallons this year.
“We were more ready this year than in the past,” said Bill Markham, speaking above the roar of the machine. “We had a little trouble getting containers, but we were able to get most of the other supplies.”
Sugaring off season in Massachusetts typically begins in late February or early March, so even with supply chain disruptions, it’s too early to tell how this season will pan out.
“You really can’t predict the season,” Pitcoff said. “It’s the same as any culture. You’re at the mercy of Mother Nature. So far what we’re seeing is good, but we’re only a very, very small part of it. the way. The reality of it is that due to climate change, the weather is less predictable, and we are dependent on the weather.”
Ah, yes, the weather.
Last spring was warmer than normal in Quebec, sending the Canadian province’s maple sugar production down about 42 million pounds from a record 175 million pounds in 2020, according to Association of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers.
This drop was significant because Quebec produces 72% of the world’s maple syrup and accounted for 133 million pounds of the 182 million pounds produced worldwide last year, according to Fortune magazine. Global demand for maple sugar has increased by 37% from 2020 to 2021, according to the Association of Maple Syrup Producers of Quebec.
Pitcoff said what happened in Quebec last year can affect Massachusetts.
“Absolutely,” he said. “It’s more about consistency than anything. If you look back just three decades ago, sugar makers knew you were going to mine in early March and make their syrup in March.
“What we were used to was slow, gradual thaws, but what we’re seeing now are shorter, much more spread out amounts of syrup, so some people are making syrup in January, and sometimes it lasts until April,” Pitcoff said. “I think one year someone made syrup in May. It’s not the same year after year.”
When asked how climate change might affect sugar milling in Massachusetts in five or 10 years, Pitcoff said, “It’s a pretty gradual change. It’s not something that even in five or 10 years , we’ll notice a change. It’s more of a generation crawl.”
Climate change and the realities of the global economy have introduced a number of new invasive pests to Massachusetts that are harming the environment because they have no natural predators here, Pitcoff said. As an example, he cited the Asian long-horned beetle, which arrived in Worcester on shipping pallets and caused the felling of 39,000 trees in Massachusetts, the majority of them sugar maples.
“Things like that are going to continue to be problems for us,” he said. “As far as the actual range of trees, it’s not like we’re at the extreme south of the climate for sugar maples. There are sugar maples as far south as Kentucky and the West Virginia, and they have a pretty big sugar making industry in that area.
Berkshire sugar makers say they will be able to adapt to any climate change because they always do.
“As farmers in general, we watch all growing season patterns,” Leab said. “It’s just one more piece of the puzzle. Farmers know how to adapt.”