Maple syrup producers enjoy sweet business

HARRISBURG – Nice people make one of the sweetest products made in Pennsylvania, one expert says.

“You won’t run into nicer people than maple syrup producers. I have never met a syrup maker who is not as sweet as their product,” said Bob Hansen, district director for Penn State Extension in Bradford, Sullivan, Tioga and Susquehanna counties, who is known as a maple industry expert.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service, Pennsylvania ranks fifth in maple syrup production in the United States behind Vermont, New York, Maine and Wisconsin.

In 2015, Pennsylvania was responsible for 165,000 gallons or 5 percent of the 3,414,000 gallons of maple syrup produced in the United States.

The number of taps has increased from 583,000 in 2013 to 620,000 in 2015.

The value of the maple syrup produced increased from $4.77 million in 2013 to $5.125 million in 2014. Figures for 2015 are not yet available.

“When you talk about agriculture, we are a drop in the bucket compared to cattle or crop products. We are not a major player, but we rank fifth in production in the United States. We still have a tremendous amount of tappable trees. We are not using a fraction of what is available,” said President Gary Bilek of the Pennsylvania Maple Syrup Producers Council, which has a large display in the Main Hall at the Pennsylvania Farm Show in Harrisburg.

Somerset County, with 126,848 taps and 26,819 gallons of maple syrup, was by far the top producing county, according to 2012 NASS data.

“Sugar maples love the cooler environment. The high elevation of Somerset County makes it a good environment for sugar maple trees,” Hansen said.

Maple syrup season soon will be underway.

“Our season varies on duration according to the weather. Our typical tapping begins in early February and may last up to six weeks,” said Mike Lynch, co-owner of Baer Brothers Maple Camp near Friedens.

Sugar maples produce the best syrup.

“They have a higher sugar content in their sap. It averages about 2 percent sugar in the sap. Pure maple syrup is about 66 percent sugar. It takes a lot of boiling to get it from 2 percent to 66 percent,” Hansen said.

“It takes about 40 to 60 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup. We also use red maples. They are lower in sugar content and take 60 to 70 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup,” Lynch said.

Lynch sells other products besides maple syrup.

“We sell maple syrup, candies, creams and maple sugar. All of these start out as syrup, but then we boil them to different temperatures. Probably of what we sell, 80 to 85 percent is the syrup,” Lynch said.

There are reasons why maple syrup is so popular.

“To me, it is the taste of pure maple syrup. It is far superior to the fake syrups you buy in the store. Nowadays, people are looking for more natural-type foods, with maple, nothing is added to it. You just boil the sap, there is nothing more natural than that. It is just sap from the maple trees,” Hansen said.

“Maple syrup with the nutritional movement has gained a lot of strength in the past 10 to 20 years. It is a natural product. People are more health conscious. We are seeing that as the maple syrup business continues to grow,” said Bilek, owner of Triple Creek Maple Products, Cranesville. “People usually go from pancake to real syrup; they rarely ever go back.”

Hansen is optimistic about the future of the industry in Pennsylvania.

“It won’t disappear. It is a different kind of agriculture than dairy farming. The demand for syrup is different. People who want it will continue to buy it even if the price goes up; people that are hooked on it will enjoy it and buy it,” Hansen said.

The 100th farm show continues through Saturday at the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex and Expo Center in Harrisburg.