Sunday, March 22, 2009

The shame of the north

The other day, I went to a sugar shack for the first time. For those who don’t know, a sugar shack is a place where maple sap is rendered down to make maple syrup. It’s supposed to be a traditional New England process, with wizened farmers pouring pitchers of sap into giant vats that simmer for hours over wood fires.

They’ve always sold maple syrup, but the idea of sugar shacks where you eat it right at the source . . . that’s something new. It is legit, or another trick for the tourists? Or is it just another way to milk the rich New Yorkers on their way to Vermont? I decided to find out . . .

Thousands of gallons of raw sap are boiled down to make a few gallons of syrup, which is liquid gold for farmers at this time of year. At least, that’s what’s supposed to happen. As I discovered, the reality may be somewhat different. And the smiling farmers may not be quite what you expect. Then again, maybe they’re exactly what you expect. It just depends on your perspective.

I walked in the front door, which opened into a post and beam barn whose centerpiece was a big steaming vat of sap. There was a wood fire roaring beneath it, and jolly diners lapping up sap on pancakes at picnic tables all around the room.

Great clouds of steam rose to the ceiling, where they escaped through slats in the roof. Laughing kids ran from table to table, and a jovial farmer tended the fire and answered questions for the tourists.

The scene looked too sweet to be real. I slipped out the door and walked up the hill out back. That’s where it hit me, right in the pit of my stomach. The smell. The odor of half-burnt fuel oil almost knocked me over. I realized the pastoral wood fire scene was just for show. The real work was done with petroleum. There were jets of liquid fire underneath a veneer of wood. And if the wood’s a fake, I thought, what else is going on?

I’d heard rumors, but they were too shameful to credit. Until now.

Maybe that “pure” maple syrup isn’t so pure after all. Maybe those empty plastic drums out back contained something other than fertilizer. Come to think of it, what kind of fertilizer do maple trees need, anyway?

I did the math as I stood there, wreathed in oily smoke. A 55 gallon drum of corn syrup costs $650. A 32 ounce jug of “pure maple syrup” sells for $30. That 55 gallon drum contains 7,000 ounces of liquid. Add 10% maple syrup for authenticity, and your $650 investment fetches $7,200 on the street.

With a sick feeling, I realized why the syrup containers never run dry. With that kind of profit, they can afford to be generous. Jeez, I thought, are the pancakes rigged too?

The profits are almost as good as cooking meth, with none of the attendant risk. Who ever heard of a farmer sentenced to twenty years for cooking bogus syrup?

I’m sure there’s some farmers who play it straight. Maybe even most. But the maple crop dwindles a little every year, while “pure syrup” production keeps on rising. How can that be? And when the snow finally melts, and you take a walk out back of the sugar shack, there’s a slick of half burnt fuel oil and soot coating a bunch of dirty plastic drums with the letters “FOOD GRADE ONLY” fading in the bright springtime sun.

Sixteen drums. Seven grand apiece. That’s a hundred fifteen thousand dollars, with the waste pile to prove it. All for a one-month sugar season.

Maybe I should start a maple syrup farm. I did ok with girl scout cookies, but this could be big. Really big.

15 comments:

Chumplet - Sandra Cormier said...

Yikes! You're scaring me!

I sure hope most maple syrup farms come by their crop honestly.

cath c said...

please, say it ain't so!

i'm so duped.

John Elder Robison said...

OK . . . it ain't so if you want to believe it ain't so. After all, I did not conduct an investigation of 100 sugar shacks. I did not chemically analyse the product. I just observed a stench and junk pile behind one building.

Neil said...

Hey,

Commercial sugaring operations that I know of pipe the sap in platic hosing from the maple trees hose to those food grade barrels. A commercial operation can't make it using buckets. They then pick those barrels up with a tractor or some sort although my Vermont cousin uses a pair (a brace) of Percheron work horses and a sled.

I believe that the law requires an inspector from the USDA comes to grade the syrup ( Fancy, Grade A medium, Grade A dark, etc.) before they can sell it. I doubt that they would approve of maple syrup adulterated with corn syrup. No farmer would be dumb enough to leave corn syrup barrels around for someone like you to discover.

Woof.

Catana said...

Strange parallels in my reading this morning. Dwindling supply of pure maple syrup (climate change, tree diseases) and rising demand means cutting corners, adulterating the product. Rising cost of maintaining staff and infrastructure of colleges combined with cutbacks in financial support and rising demand for college entrance means cutting courses and whole departments, not replacing natural attrition of staff. Adulteration of education.

Paulene Angela said...

From what I can remember of that beautiful taste of maple syrup, I have it right now in my mouth, mmmmm. I would taste a fake.

I would imagine some of the farms sell a range of different qualitites, like here in Spain with our olive oil.

Unfortunately, I am sure your eyes and smell were working correctly, but like Neil says who would be dumb enough to leave corn syrup barrels lying around? so something does not add up here!!!

Perhaps you could turn P.I., good spotting.

Kanani said...

I for one would welcome your new vocation. I would love to read about adventures in maple sugar fakery, and perhaps a different type of book could come out of this!
xxoo

Cheryl Kauffman said...

This is my first visit to your blog after Stephen Parrish recommended your book to me. My daughter was recently diagnosed with AS. Thanks for sharing your story.
I grew up in NH and my cousin owned a maple farm in Canada. It was nothing like what you described in your post and they eventually had to sell their farm after having financial troubles. I only buy pure maple syrup, but still tastes nothing near as good as I had on the farm.

Kim Stagliano said...

We were in New Canaan a couple of weeks ago and a large area had shiny tin buckets on the trees. It was nice looking.

You are pulling our legs, Mr. Robison. You're good at it, from what I've read.

And Trader Joe's now wells Maple Syrup mixed with Agave syrup to lower the cost. Mrs. Butterworth's is sweet but rather fake and disgusting.

You ARE pulling our legs, right, John?

nancylinguist said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nancy 66 said...

this one is quite humorous. however, shame on those people. what ever happened to honesty is the best policy?

Dad Stuff said...

I had no idea.

Descartes said...

There used to be laws about fake foods vs real foods, but most of them have been shot down over the years. So maybe Pure Maple Syrup doesn't have to made from the sap of maple trees anymore.

Did you eat any of the maple sugar candy while you were there? Now that stuff is sweet.

Polly Kahl said...

Yes, Kim, he's kidding, Again. John you are such a jokemeister.

Eric said...

As a native Greenfielder and a son of a Montagoonian and a Holyokian, I grew up on 'the real stuff' (versus Log Cabin and other hideous brands), and have only witnessed two farms that still rely on good old wood for their boiling needs. Call it a reflection of the times unfortunately, but I've known several sugarers, and most are very dedicated to the art. The main problem is labor, not enough of it. Most sugaring operations are family-run, and not enough of the new generations are available (or willing) to run the operation in the traditional sense.