The maple syrup industry is worth around $300 million, and some people call it “liquid gold.” Vermont farmers are facing increased competition from large corporations and artificially flavored corn syrup. But the Silloway family is using technology to preserve their cherished tradition.
Every year, when winter loosens its grip, sugar farmers hike into the woods and tap thousands of trees. It takes up to 60 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. The ultimate renewable resource, maple trees produce sugar four to six weeks a year, potentially for hundreds of years, reports CBS News correspondent Don Dahler. It only takes a taste to know that’s a sweet deal.
For 75 winters, Dave Silloway’s family has been making maple syrup.
When he was a boy, they used to tap for syrup with hand drills and hammers, horses and sleds, and thousands of buckets that had to be emptied multiple times a day if the sap was really flowing.
“How many trees do you think you were working back then?” Dahler asked.
“Probably 800 to 1,000 trees,” Silloway said.
Vermont is the largest maple syrup producer in the U.S. With every fourth tree in the state being a maple, there’s plenty of natural resources for big and small businesses, which now produce more than 1.3 million gallons of syrup a year.
The Silloway family has always been primarily dairy farmers, but a few years ago, Silloway’s nephew, Paul Lambert, took it upon himself to sweeten their family fortunes by taking their syrup operation from hobby to big business.
“It was a side business for a long time, and now it’s more of an income producer for you and your family?” Dahler asked.
“Right, yeah. It’s important to us,” Lambert said.
Drills and hammers replaced by miles of plastic tubes tapped into 6,200 trees. High-tech equipment takes the clear sap, boils it down, which produces the liquid syrup. Seventy solar panels subsidize the energy costs of the entire operation.
“We produce about 40 gallons an hour with this rig,” Lambert said. “And a total of around 3,000 a year to 3,500 gallons.”
“Before you modernized the system, what were you producing?” Dahler asked.
“Somewhere around 300 to 500 gallons of syrup,” Lambert said.
According to a recent study, maple farmers fear overproduction but are also worried about climate change. Winters in Vermont are getting warmer earlier.
“The first Tuesday in March would be when we tapped the trees; now we should tap the trees the first week of February, a month earlier, to get more of the days when it’s above freezing during the daytime and freezing at night for sap flows,” Silloway said.
For now, tapping earlier often means longer, more profitable seasons. But a warm snap can shut things down quickly. Still, when the sap is flowing and the entire family is working almost around the clock, they always take the time to count their blessings and thank the humble maple tree -- the gift that keeps on giving.
“For someone who doesn’t live up here and do this, what’s the best thing about this business?” Dahler asked.
“The warm days, seeing the sap flow out of the tree, the taste of fresh maple syrup,” Silloway said.