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Sweet deal: U.S. maple syrup production is rising

Spring is a critical time for aficionados of maple syrup.

Across the northern regions where sugar maple trees flourish, syrup producers are closely monitoring the weather. They're hoping for the ideal conditions of just-above-freezing temperatures during the day and below-freezing at night that allow sap to freely flow out of tapped trees, where it can then be boiled down into the highly prized syrup.

And so far, according to Matt Gordon, executive director of the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers' Association, this season is still up for grabs.

Weather pushing maple syrup production out of U.S.

"We are so dependent, so reliant on the weather, more so than even some other crops," he told CBS MoneyWatch. "The weather impacts how long our season will be, and that really impacts how much syrup we'll be able to make."

Last year, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data, brutal winter temperatures decreased the length of the sugar maple tapping season and knocked national maple syrup production down to a total of 3.17 million gallons, a 10 percent decrease from 2013.

But U.S. maple syrup production rose by 70 percent between 2012 and 2013, the largest crop in 70 years, and that growth was not due solely to good weather conditions.

"Our production is up dramatically, not only in Vermont but really across the maple-producing region," says Gordon.

He said there are two reasons for that expansion: More sugar maples are being tapped, while new technologies are allowing the syrup producers' collection and boiling methods to become more efficient.

Consumer demand, both domestically and internationally, is spurring that growth, as people search for natural and healthier sweeteners.

"People are starting to pay a little bit more attention to what they eat and that includes maple syrup," Jacques Letourneau, CEO of the Quebec-based Island Pond Maple Factory, recently told the Associated Press, "because you look at the back of a bottle of maple syrup and you read the ingredient list and there's only one. You look at back of some table syrups, I won't name anybody, you need a chemistry book to find out what it is exactly you're eating."

Island Pond is just one of the big maple syrup producers that have recently arrived on the scene and are displacing the more traditional, small-farm version of syrup production in Vermont and elsewhere.

AP reports one such company, Sweetree, has plans to become North America's largest maple syrup producer. Sweetree has already bought 7,000 acres of forest in northeastern Vermont and has installed 95,000 taps in sugar maple trees there. It's projected to end up tapping a half-million trees in the region.

In the meantime, Gordon of the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers' Association says maple syrup makers in Vermont -- which provides over 44 percent of all U.S. production -- won't know until late next month just how this year's tapping season went.

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