Friday, September 20, 2013

Syrup and sustainability

    Maple syrup and milk, closely associated with Vermont in the public imaginary, add value to the region, just as Maine benefits more than economically from lobsters and blueberries. As Michael Lange, presenting at the cultural sustainability symposium in Craftsbury Common, Vermont, pointed out, sugaring from the sap of the sugar maple trees is paradigmatically associated with the state, both as product and symbol. As a natural resource-based product, maple syrup is an important part of the Vermont economy; and Vermont accounts for nearly 40% of the US maple syrup production. But its economic value goes well beyond the product itself, for sugaring conjures up images of old-fashioned, wholesome rural lifestyles that attract tourists to the state, images that over the years also have attracted in-migrants. In this way, the tourist dollar value of a heritage symbol is enmeshed in cultural as well as natural resource sustainability.
    Although most sugaring operations sell to the wholesale trade, some also offer a portion of their product to the general public in small shops attached to the sugarhouses. In the state of Maine, which accounts for 20% of the total amount of US maple syrup production, it’s not uncommon to see homemade signs along the road during late winter sugaring season, advertising a local sugar-maker’s product, which is sold out of the home. But Maine does not have the large sugar-making operations that not only serve the wholesale trade but market under their own name and at the same time create tourist stops where visitors to Vermont may see demonstrations of sugar making and taste the product, year round. A few of these are quite large, rivaling living history museums in size and attractiveness; they also are competitive, and each has its partisans. In fact, when Lange named a few of them, Vermonters in the room immediately spoke up in favor of this one or that one; and if Lange hadn’t stepped back in, a lively debate on whose syrup was best would have interrupted the presentation.
    Lange placed these large sugar making tourist attractions squarely within the cultural heritage industry, and with it the ongoing debate among culture workers over the hells and benefits of heritage tourism. Although he didn’t elaborate on it, sugaring (like lobstering) is dependent on an ongoing natural resource, which brings in sustainability issues, international trade and competition (for maple syrup, the competition is with Canada, which subsidizes its sugar makers), state and federal regulation, and so forth, often putting sugar makers at odds with regulators over best practices. The ongoing health of the sugar maples in the forests, just like the health of lobsters in the oceans, will depend in part on the effects of climate change. We don’t expect the Vermont forests to look like those south of the Mason-Dixon line anytime soon; rather, the warming climate brings changes to the ecosystem in the form of pests and predators that the sugar maples have not previously had to combat.
    Vermont prides itself on the quality of its syrup and, indeed, offers it in four grades: fancy, grade A medium amber, dark amber, and grade B. No other state makes such fine distinctions. But ironically, this grading system works against Vermont syrup outside of the state. Grade B is considered inferior because of the labeling, whereas outside the state much ungraded Canadian syrup that would be labeled grade B in Vermont doesn’t carry the same negative connotation. A further irony is that the fancy syrup, being the purest and most delicate-flavored, has the least amount of maple taste; those wanting a stronger taste of maple use the darker syrups. The state legislature this year debated whether to endorse grade inflation: all Vermont syrup would henceforth be labelled grade A, and the distinctions would be made on the basis of color and the degree of maple taste. A Boston Globe article concluded by quoting an eighth-generation sugar maker, Doug Bragg: “Most of our customers are asking, why do we have to do this [change in the grading system]? There’s a logic to it, no question about it. It’s still annoying, though.” (
    As heritage tourism is a frequently-discussed topic on this blog, there’s no need to review it fully here. But maple sugar tourism differs from that revolving around much traditional music in the US in that sugaring is a viable industry and would remain one without heritage tourism, whereas heritage tourism often gives traditional music a second life, one that would not be viable without it. Like lobsters and blueberries, maple sugar tourism offers not just an education but a food reward at the end of the lecture. Forestry tourism doesn’t do that, which may be why in Maine, for example, it’s not as attractive as lobsters and blueberries. Nor has Maine capitalized on sugaring tourism anywhere to the extent that Vermont has done.
    Lange concluded his presentation by discussing a different kind of educational involvement with sugar making, a program at an elementary school in Fairfield, Vermont, where youngsters participate hands-on in sugar-making, presumably giving them a deeper involvement than the tourists get, and also a deeper understanding of what this symbolic state industry involves at the ground level. Such innovative programs could also involve field trips and nature-study, a curriculum that has gradually been disappearing from the schools in favor of the abstractions of modern science.
    In our own field trip, to a former dairy farm, we grappled with economic and cultural sustainability issues surrounding the other picture-book Vermont industry: dairy farming. I will have more to say about that shortly.

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