The village of Island Pond, in the Northeast Kingdom, is becoming the maple sugar capital of North America. An out-of-state company called Sweet Tree has bought about 7,000 acres and tapped 100,000 trees this year. But they say they don’t want to make the stuff you put on pancakes.
Which comes as good news to smaller competitors.
Before Sweet Tree started stringing its blue sap lines, the newest maple producer in this remote area was April's Maple. Three years ago, April Lemay left a corporate job in Boston to return to her birthplace and make about 4,000 gallons of syrup from 800 acres of forest land that’s been in the family for generations.
Fresh sap streams into a holding tank in a sugar house attached to a cafe and store. Lemay has invested in high-tech equipment. She's not a hobbyist, but she's not an industrialist, either.
“Backyard boilers often come in here, and they walk in and lose their breath at first and with envy, like, 'Ooh, I wish I could have this.' And when you go to Sweet Tree, you will see that it can be industrial,” Lemay says.
So industrial, she hopes, that Sweet Tree will not venture into her small specialty market for syrup, maple creams and candies.
About 15 miles down a pot-holed Route 114, Sweet Tree CFO Michael Argyelan is showing its new processing plant to local and state economic development officials. He starts with a reassuring announcement.
“We’re not gonna sell syrup. We’re gonna use the syrup to make other things, so this way we won’t disrupt the maple market in the state or the United States. So we’re not gonna dump product just to make money, that kind of thing,” Argyelan explains.
He leads his guests into what he calls the “lab” but dodges questions about what he — a chemist — might cook up there.
“This is just a laboratory area. Half of the equipment is not in there, we’re still working on it,” he says.
David Snedeker, executive director of the Northeastern Vermont Development Association, peers at a commercial stove.
“Is that for...uh?” he ventures.
“Test products. That’s pretty much what it is, just test products,” Argyelan answers, without elaborating.
But by the time the tour reaches the room with four gigantic steam-powered evaporators (eventually there will be eight, capable of processing over 300,000 gallons of syrup a year), Argyelan eventually drops a tantalizing hint. He says his wife is trying out one of his experiments — a facial scrub made from the gritty maple sand left behind after boiling.
That gets a smile from NVDA Director Snedeker. He likes what he's hearing about a value-added production line.
“Be nice if there were some spin-off activity from that in the community,” he remarks at the end of the tour.
And there's more good economic news for the region. Jacques Letourneau, of the Canadian company Bernard and Sons, is trying to set up a network of American producers to help meet growing worldwide demand.
“And that’s why we decided to get a warehouse in Island Pond, about 15,000 square feet, where we can expand that network, but on the U.S. side," he says in a phone interview.
Letourneau likes what he calls the “freer” market in the United States. He expects to pay lower prices for syrup here than he does in Canada, where the maple industry is more closely controlled. He says international customers in 34 countries generally prefer a Canadian brand. But if the syrup comes from Vermont trees, the label says “Made in Canada and the United States.”
Both Bernards’ warehouse and the Sweet Tree building used to be owned by Ethan Allen furniture, which shut down in Island Pond in 2001. Maple sugaring may not replace hundreds of those lost jobs, but it’s one way to sustain the same working forests that used to yield tables and chairs.