Jim Smith, right, co-owner of Smith Brothers Maple Farm in Skowhegan, on Sunday explains the process of making syrup to Claire Pish, left, and Barbara Burum, during the statewide Maine Maple Sunday event.
Maine has the natural resources necessary to produce all of its own sugar, but the state's maple sugar industry is a long way from making that a reality, producers said on the 30th annual Maple Syrup Sunday.
"I think there's an opportunity there," said Kevin Brennan, a director of the Maine Maple Producers Association. "The market's there. It would just take someone to explore it and pursue it."
The arithmetic supports the idea that Maine could meet its own need for sugar.
Americans consume an average of 156 pounds of sugar each year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which would mean Mainers take in about 203 million pounds of the stuff, most of it hidden in soda and other processed foods.
Making 203 million pounds of granular maple sugar would take about 25 million gallons of maple syrup.
This is far more than the 360,000 gallons the state's 1.47 million taps produce right now, Brennan said, but Maine's sugar shack industry taps only about 1 percent of the maple trees available; and the number of maple trees in the state could be increased with wood lot management.
"I believe there is enough maple syrup in the state to do that," Brennan said.
While it's theoretically possible, there are some major obstacles to convincing consumers to give up the bags of white sugar found in most of their pantries.
Everyone is familiar with maple syrup, a burgeoning industry that, along with lobsters and blueberries, has become one of Maine's calling cards. However, when it comes to maple sugar, a product that can be made by adjusting the temperature and stirring the raw syrup differently, awareness is much less universal.
"I didn't know such a thing exists," said Clair Pish, of Flemington, N.J., who was visiting local maple syrup producers in Skowhegan on Sunday.
Barbara Burum, of Skowhegan, said she has tried syrup on ice cream, but she's never used maple sugar for cooking.
Even those who buy maple sugar aren't using it as a regular replacement for their white sugar.
Caryl Estes, of Waterville, said that she bought a bag of it once, but it wasn't to use in her kitchen. It was a gift to a tour guide in Ireland, meant to represent Maine's culinary offerings.
The three women were among an estimated thousands of people whose cars lined Rowe Road in Skowhegan, where two maple sugar operations are located within a two-mile stretch.
At one, Smith Brothers Maple Farm, co-owner Jim Smith, 35, said his own family virtually has eliminated refined white sugar from the house.
"We use maple in everything," he said.
Citing the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the maple producer's association lists maple sugar's benefits. It has more calcium, zinc, potassium and manganese than white sugar. At the same time, maple sugar has fewer calories than maple syrup, cane sugar, corn syrup or honey, according to the association.
Despite the health advantages, Smith said, the product hasn't made it onto the shelves of sugar alternatives.
"Even if I go into health food stores, I don't find it that much," he said.
While there is a lack of awareness and comfort with maple sugar, there are signs that its use could spread.
Over the past decade, Maine's small-scale farmers have been busily spreading public awareness of the advantages of buying local food, which has led to a resurgence of interest in fresh, local produce, eggs and meats.
The same people who support local vegetable farmers also could be interested in locally produced sugar.
Tyler Bateman, 28, and Erin Bateman, 27, of St. Albans, are among those who appreciate maple sugar. They visit specialty supermarkets such as Trader Joe's in Portland and consciously try to buy local food whenever they can.
"I like to keep the money in Maine," Tyler Bateman said while the couple spent time at Strawberry Hill Farm's sugaring operation, located up the road from the Smith brothers.
Erin Bateman said she would "definitely" buy maple sugar, even if it was more expensive, because she would feel good about supporting an all-natural, local product. For her, the problem is access.
"I've never seen it," she said. "If I saw it in the store, I would definitely buy it."
Ruth Jacobs, of Oakland, also at Strawberry Hill, said she has used maple sugar for baking, in part because the unique flavor appeals to her, compared to other sweeteners.
For Jacobs, too, availability is the biggest issue.
"If they had it in the grocery store, I would buy it," she said. "I'm willing to pay extra."
And make no mistake, maple sugar does cost extra.
The Smith brothers sell a one-pound bag for $5. Large retail supermarkets sometimes sell 10-pound bags of regular sugar for about $6.
Even with an economy of scale, the labor-intensive process is inherently more expensive than working with cane sugar, according to Jack Steeves, 81, who co-owns Strawberry Hill.
Producers don't have much of an incentive to drive the price of genuine Maine maple syrup down, because there are still plenty of markets willing to pay a higher price for a commodity that is, globally, pretty scarce.
With about 40,000 taps in operation, the Steeves family members still sell as much syrup and other maple products as they can make.
His son, Jeremy Steeves, another co-owner of Strawberry Hill, said the global market for Maine-made maple syrup is expanding, which is likely to keep prices high.
"The industry is growing at a steady rate of 15 percent a year," he said. "The biggest expansion is overseas, China, Korea."
Worldwide, both the quantity of maple syrup sold and the price per gallon have doubled over the past 10 years, he said.
Despite the higher prices and the lack of consumer awareness about maple sugar, Jack Steeves said the right person could still make a good business by meeting the local desire for maple sugar.
"They would have to have ambition and know-how and the money to start it," Steeves said.
Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287
Lisa Wheeler gives her granddaughter, Lilly Wheeler, a taste of maple taffy, made by pouring hot maple syrup over snow, at Strawberry Hill Farms in Skowhegan, during the statewide Maine Maple Sunday event.
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