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March 30. 2013 4:05AM

Consyrupy theory

Jack Savage's Forest Journal: The whole waffle truth


 


Guarding the sugarhouse from would-be maple thieves -- not to mention those darn squirrels. (JACK SAVAGE)

I always make sure to have a pint or two of real maple syrup squirreled away in the back of the cabinet. It seems only prudent to have a backup supply.

But I never knew that the Province of Quebec does the same thing on a grand scale, having established a "strategic maple syrup reserve." I only learned of this when it was widely reported last fall that a sizeable part of that reserve was stolen.

By renting a portion of the same warehouse where millions of dollars of syrup were being stored in 55-gallon drums as part of the reserve, thieves methodically siphoned off millions of gallons worth millions of dollars - so much that it took tractor trailers to move it all.

The theft was only discovered when empty barrels - and some filled with water - were found during a routine inspection. Arrests were made last December in what was being called the Great Maple Heist. Some of the stolen syrup apparently made its way to the New England market.

But that leads to an interesting question: Why does Quebec have a strategic maple syrup reserve? I mean, really?

Only two nations in the world produce real maple syrup: the United States and Canada. It is Canada that dominates production, however, accounting for 80 percent of the world's maple syrup supply - and 90 percent of that is produced in Quebec.

Sirop d'erable dominates.

In New Hampshire, the making of maple syrup is a cottage industry; we typically produce $3 million to $5 million worth of the sweet stuff each year. The value of the tourism associated with sugar-making is at least as important economically as the sale of syrup itself.

And as any New Hampshire sugar-maker knows, production can fluctuate significantly from year to year based on the weather. The 2012 season was a down year, for example, as an early spring stopped the sap drops from dripping. If you're counting on consistent cash flow, it's handy to have some of last year's crop safely stored in the back of the sugarhouse when the tourists knock on the door.

To counter the ebb and flow of supply, the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers established the strategic maple syrup reserve. It issues quotas for syrup makers, and any production over and above those quotas is placed in that reserve.

In fact, the scheme operates as a cartel, rather like OPEC in the petroleum industry. By controlling more than 70 percent of the world's production of syrup, and by establishing a strategic reserve, Quebec can dictate the price citizens the world over pay to drizzle their pancakes.

And while that may leave a sour taste in consumers' mouths, it's one way for producers to leverage dominance, as the Middle East has done for decades with oil supply. Hydro Quebec would love to do the same with electricity.

The closest thing we have in New Hampshire to a strategic maple syrup reserve is our permanently protected forests. A number of the Forest Society's forest reservations have healthy stands of maple, and in a few cases we lease them to established sugar makers. As long as sugar maples grow in New Hampshire, our reserve is in the forest, rather than in a warehouse.

Meanwhile, I'm happy to have my own little sugar house where I can produce as much syrup as I'm willing to do the work for every year. (I won't mention where it is, just in case somebody wants to steal my backup supply.) I can remain independent of the Quebec syrup cartel. A little independence is a nice thing to have.


Jack Savage is the editor of Forest Notes: New Hampshire's Conservation Magazine, published by the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. Email him at jsavage@forestsociety.org.


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