The economics of maple syrup is really pretty simple. It takes forty gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. A good tree on a good day should yield a gallon of sap. The syrup season is about forty days long (Ash Wednesday to Easter). Therefore one tree should produce one gallon of syrup per season. And if you tap about thirty trees as I have done this year, you should get about thirty gallons of syrup before the season is over.

Notice that I said “should.” Once you have your basic equations in place it starts getting complicated.

To begin with, the forty day syrup season is not, unlike Lent, forty consecutive days – or forty-six if you count Sundays. You need days when the temperature gets well up into the thirties and nights when it’s down in the twenties. Those never come forty days in a row. I tapped the first dozen or so trees on Wednesday and got about a dozen gallons by the end of the day. Then the temperature went down below freezing and stayed there for three days and no sap ran. Now it’s up again and the sap is running. It ought to run even better tomorrow. But the rest of the week looks uncertain. But forty days from now, the holes I have bored will begin to close up and the sap will slow. Buds will swell on the trees and the sap that does run will go cloudy. You will probably not get forty days of good production or anything like it.

Then there’s the individuality of trees. Not all maple trees are the same. Some produce sap with a higher sugar content than that of other maples. Some seem to produce better some years than other years. I often put two taps into the same tree and find that one tap produces better than the other. When I say that a “good tree on a good day should produce one gallon of sap,” I cannot calculate that my 30 some taps will produce 30 gallons today or tomorrow. Most days it will be less. Once in a while, it may be more.

But the “economics” of syrup production is primarily not a matter of sap at all but of fuel. The sap is free if you have maple trees, but the fuel may not be. I make syrup the old fashioned way: with an evaporator over a wood fire. I have never seen a rule of thumb for the number of cords of wood to a gallon of syrup but it might be as much as one for one. Of course, some kinds of wood also burn hotter than others, so am I using mostly red oak or ash or birch? It makes a big difference. I have enough wood and to spare, but I run a small operation on a big piece of land. Most producers these days probably buy their wood or use a gas fueled fire that’s even more expensive. It’s the fuel for the evaporator that’s the primary cost of making syrup.

What about collecting the sap? I remember visiting sugar bushes in up-state New York when I was growing up that sent a huge tub on a heavy sled around the sugar bush drawn by a pair of horses. Now the big operations may use plastic hoses strung between the trees. I may use my lawn tractor but likelier will just trudge through the snow carrying buckets. The horses were otherwise generally unemployed in the syrup season so that was essentially free labor. The manpower is basically free also. A farmer doesn’t have much else to do in the early spring while waiting for the ground to thaw. And who else makes syrup except retired folk sitting around with nothing to do but write books? If I use my tractor, however, there’s the cost of the gasoline. If you string up plastic tubing, that probably costs even more. One way or another, if you don’t use horses, there’s a cost.

And then there’s the finishing and bottling. I bring the syrup into the house for the final evaporating on the kitchen stove. It takes close watching to get it off the stove and into the bottle at the right moment. More gas. And then the bottles. We used to use mason jars, but today it’s mostly plastic bottles at roughly $1.35 each for half pint or pint bottles. Significant, but a minor cost overall.

But have you checked the price of maple syrup recently? I hadn’t in a year or two and it’s gone up! $7.95 a half pint; $12.50 a pint, and almost $60 a gallon. That’s mostly the cost of the fuel.

But on a cold day, when someone makes pancakes and there’s real maple syrup to put on it, or come a hot day in the summer when you dish up some ice cream and pour syrup over it, its worth every penny!

1 Comment

LibbyFebruary 24th, 2008 at 4:45 pm

We had pancakes tonight with your maple syrup on them and were again grateful that you go to all the trouble. It’s worth it, from our point of view!

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