Farming Magazine - August, 2014

COLUMNS

Boiling it Down: Counting Sugar Makers

By Winton Pitcoff

The 2012 U.S. Census of Agriculture offers the most current and complete overview of the maple industry, and the trend from previous years is one of steady growth, particularly for large producers. As in most agricultural sectors, release of the data is highly anticipated every five years, as it gives farmers, researchers and industry specialists an opportunity to see how the industry is changing geographically, demographically and economically.

"It's hard to say enough good things about the service and the information we get from them," said Timothy Perkins, director of the University of Vermont Proctor Maple Research Center. The data is used to demonstrate the success of projects designed to help grow the industry, as well as to identify areas of need for further research and investment, he said.

The clearest picture of growth in the industry that the 2012 census offers is the number of taps set - 11.25 million in 2012 versus 8.25 million in 2007, growth of more than a third of production capacity in just five years. The number of producers also went up, though nowhere near as dramatically - the increase was less than 3 percent, from 7,750 in 2007 to 7,942 in 2012.

These numbers point to many producers increasing the number of taps they're setting. The average number of taps per operation increased by a third, to 1,420. The number of farms that reported setting fewer than 2,000 taps actually decreased between the two censuses, from 6,767 in 2007 to 6,707 in 2012. Meanwhile, the number of farms with 2,000 to 5,000 taps increased by 105; those with 5,000 to 10,000 increased by 61; and 210 producers reported setting more than 10,000 taps, a nearly 70 percent increase over 2007.



Data from 2012 U.S. Census of Agriculture, http://quickstats.nass.usda.gov.

Growth among the larger producers is most likely simply a matter of economies of scale, said Matthew Gordon, executive director of the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association. Larger producers tend to have more resources on hand for investment in new equipment or to rent additional sugar bush.

There is general skepticism within the maple industry that the census numbers are accurate, with many people suggesting that farms and taps are significantly undercounted. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has acknowledged that participation in the census is an ongoing issue. The USDA's list of farmers and ranchers who receive the census, for instance, may not capture new or small farms well, or those who have chosen not to respond to past surveys. The report estimates that the total response rate for the 2012 Census of Agriculture was 80.1 percent, compared with a response rate of 85.2 percent for 2007.

Michael Farrell, a maple specialist at Cornell University, called the census and its annual companion (the production numbers gathered by the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service) an "incredible service," but pointed out that it can only be as good as the level of participation from farmers.

"The maple industry is actually much bigger than the data would indicate, and it does everyone a disservice to have our production figures misrepresented," he said. "If we are considered to be a small, niche, cottage industry, we will never get the resources and attention we deserve." Since allocations for federal and state grant and loan programs often depend upon these statistics to determine how much support a crop deserves, Farrell said all maple producers should respond to these surveys.

"The data assists our association to lobby with and gain support from our state and federal government officials," said Helen Thomas, executive director of the New York State Maple Producers Association. "It is also vital to assist in predicting and planning what promotion efforts will be needed." Many of the state associations work actively with maple producers to encourage them to respond to these surveys.

Since all crops are dependent upon weather, maple even more than others, having the census only every five years has its limitations. The season was poor for most producers in 2012, the year this survey was done, so data on production per tap doesn't show much of an increase from 2007, even though producers certainly improved their operations with vacuum systems, check valves and other practices to improve efficiency during that time. The annual NASS survey is a better tool for looking at production trends, though it only covers the 10 states with the most production.

Regardless of methodological issues, the consistency of this census allows it to provide trend lines over time that offer valuable insight into changes in the maple industry. The industry would be well-served if other data were captured as well - economic information such as number of people employed on farms, for instance, or a breakdown of the amount of syrup producers sell retail, wholesale and in bulk.

Winton Pitcoff is a freelance writer and coordinator of the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association.