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Program in farm bill looks sweet for state’s maple producers

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The federal Farm Bill includes programs to help dairy farmers and crop growers every year, but maple syrup producers have never gotten a piece of the pie.

But that situation soon could get a lot sweeter for them.

To be voted on for approval by the U.S. House of Representatives in July, a program in the five-year 2012 farm bill would provide $20 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to assist the country’s maple industry.

Called the Maple TAP Act, the initiative was approved by the Senate when it passed the farm bill last week. The program was spearheaded by Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., who says there’s an abundance of maple trees in New York state that producers could tap to create a major source of revenue.

Collectively, the state has 300 million maple trees, but fewer than 1 percent of them are tapped, according to research by Cornell University, Ithaca. The maple act could help improve the percentage put into production by providing grants for producers to expand operations, promote research and educational programs and market the state’s maple products.

“Upstate New York and the Hudson Valley stand ready and able to unleash the untapped potential of its maple syrup industry, and this legislation would help them do just that,” Mr. Schumer said in a statement. “Hundreds of millions of untapped trees are just sitting there, full of a lucrative natural resource that could propel New York to the top of the maple industry.”

The maple act could add more than $82 million to the state’s $25 million industry, according to research by Mr. Schumer’s office.

As the country’s leading maple syrup producer ahead of second-place New York, Vermont taps a whopping one-third of its maple trees. And in Quebec, 40 million more maple trees are tapped than in New York — even though it has 200 million fewer trees.

Quebec and Vermont lead New York in maple production for a good reason, said Helen M. Thomas, executive director of the New York State Maple Association. Both have robust government-funded marketing campaigns to promote their maple syrup, and lawmakers have consistently made those programs a top priority.

Nourished by Canada’s fiscal support, the maple industry in Quebec nets roughly 85 percent of the world’s crop of syrup, Ms. Thomas said.

“Almost all of the trees are tapped there, because the government has heavily funded research and marketing,” she said, adding that Canadian producers export most of the syrup overseas. Producers “are also allowed to tap on government land, which we can’t do yet here.”

Ms. Thomas said that although Vermont is only 18 percent of New York’s size, its maple industry has long thrived as the largest agricultural commodity there. The agriculture industry here, by contrast, is mixed, with its dairy industry, vegetable crops and wineries.

As a result, Vermont kept its focus on the maple industry while New York has been preoccupied with keeping its other industries afloat.

“Maple syrup has been a much bigger piece of the pie, and (Vermont) has funded the industry with a larger percent of its agriculture budget for 70 years,” Ms. Thomas said. “New York has so many agriculture commodities that we’ve given attention to, and maple syrup has been a small piece.”

But lawmakers can buck that trend with the passage of the maple act, she said, which will “get maple syrup recognized as an important commodity for the first time.”

Although tapping more trees should translate into selling more maple products statewide, an aggressive marketing campaign will be needed to expand business to other states, Ms. Thomas said. Efforts already have begun on that front, as the state’s Maple Association created a logo to market its products.

Large-scale growth into new markets won’t happen overnight, however. Right now, most maple syrup is sold by producers to local retailers and at farmers markets — a dynamic that will have to change.

“That’s our challenge — how to help local producers market their products across the country and overseas,” Ms. Thomas said. “The challenge is to either bring the consumer to the local farmer or market an artisan-type product overseas” and in California, North Carolina and Florida.

On a local level, the outlook for the maple industry is bright in Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties, said Michele E. Ledoux, executive director of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Lewis County, which partners with the Jefferson County extension office to host workshops for maple producers. She said a spate of new maple producers has started operations here over the past five years, and small producers are expanding operations.

“We’ve had a lot of beginners and younger people who start out small,” she said. “They might tap 100 trees to start out, and they just keep moving on. We’ve seen an increase in not only syrup, but value-added confections like hard candy, sugar cake and cotton candy.”

More farmers also are harvesting maple syrup as a way to provide extra seasonal income, said Steve Ammerman, manager of public affairs for the New York Farm Bureau. He praised Mr. Schumer’s efforts to add the maple funding to the farm bill after years of neglect.

“Maple farmers can grow seasonal operations to make better use of their land, and it can expand the base of their entire operation,” he said.

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