New Hampshire syrup king, author make a sweet pair

Sunday News Correspondent
March 08. 2014 11:17PM
A Bascom Maple Farms employee fills large jugs of maple syrup at the Alstead business Friday afternoon. (Meghan Pierce/Union Leader Correspondent)

ACWORTH -- Though the sap hasn't started running yet, as the largest producer of maple syrup in New Hampshire, the Bascom Maple Farms is busier than ever.

"The maple industry has got great potential," owner Bruce Bascom said Friday.

The U.S. production of maple syrup has doubled in the past 10 years, and Bascom projects it will double again in the next 10. It's a combination of international demand and technology that makes sugaring cheaper and easier, even when Mother Nature doesn't comply.

Douglas Whynott of Langdon is the author of the new book "The Sugar Season," which tells the story of the 2012 sugar season as well as Bascom's rise to being the largest maple syrup producer in the Granite State.

"As far as New Hampshire goes, they produce about a quarter of the crop in New Hampshire,'' Whynott said of Bascom Maple Farms. "They are the biggest crop in New Hampshire and one of the biggest in New England. They were the largest producer in New England or the United States at one time."

Bascom works every angle of the maple syrup industry, from tapping his own trees and producing his own maple syrup and maple candy to buying both raw sap to produce syrup and bulk syrup from other producers that he bottles and distributes.

In 2013, Bascom produced about 28,000 gallons of maple syrup from 76,000 taps.

"We buy 50 times what we produce," Bascom said.

While the large producers are trucking in large barrel drums of maple syrup. "the small producers are bringing in 5-gallon pails," he said.

Bascom also sells to food producers who add maple syrup to everything from sausages to yogurt.

From the Netherlands to New Zealand, maple syrup is in demand, and Bascom ships it all over the world.

There is also a new specialty market that desires natural sweeteners and organic products.

And Bascom sells sugaring equipment and any kind of sugaring-related products needed to produce, package or promote maple syrup.

Whynott is an author, journalist and professor of literature at Emerson College. He knew very little about the maple syrup industry before he moved to Langdon with his wife in 1997. As a local elementary school teacher, his wife went to a sugar house on a field trip geared toward teaching the children about the local agriculture business. Whynott and his wife started visiting sugar houses in the region and learned more about the culture of sugaring. Then, four years ago, Whynott heard of the threat of the longhorned beetles on the tree population.

Curious as to how this could affect the maple syrup industry, he called local syrup producer Bascom, whose farm is only five miles from Whynott's Langdon home.

The conversation soon veered into other aspects of the industry, and Whynott was intrigued. He started spending time at Bascom's, observing the production line and boiling room and going into the woods where employees check the plastic tubing that collects the sap.

Whynott returned each season to learn more about the industry for his book, which focuses on the 2012 season.

The season was warm, but this year is turning out too cold and could mean a short spring and sugaring season.

Although Saturday was the right temperature for the sap to start flowing, temperatures are expected to plunge back down this week for another week of freezing days and nights, which has maple producers concerned, Whynott said.

"Throughout the region, the sap run hasn't started and they are worried," he said. "There is concern now because of the prolonged cold spell."

Bascom, though, takes the weather in his stride. He is part of the fifth generation of his family to sugar on the property where he grew up and continues to live today.

Bascom comes from a line of dairy farmers that sugared on the side, but at the age of 14, Bascom sold his dairy herd in an attempt to make a full-time go of sugaring.

There have been good years and years that were disastrous financially, he said, but the hope is always that it evens out. And it has, he said. The business is also about family and friendship. In years when the market is flooded with syrup, Bascom has taken out loans to buy from his regular producers. He doesn't need the extra syrup, but he appreciates the loyalty his producers have shown him, so he wants to return it. So even though the 2014 season hasn't started, Bascom still has a two-month supply of syrup in his refrigerated basement that can hold about 725,000 gallons of maple syrup.

"The maple industry used to be much, much bigger than today, and it peaked out in the 1860s," Bascom said.

One hundred years later, in the 1960s, the tide turned as technology started to make production cheaper and easier. New plastic tubing replaced buckets, and tractors started to replace horse power.

While many small operations today still use buckets and boil the sap over large flat pans in quaint sugar houses, Bascom uses the latest technology, with vacuum-pumped plastic tubing that collects the sap even when temperatures are not ideal - just below freezing at night and just above freezing during the day, about 25 degree to 45 degrees.

During the warm 2012 season, this technology proved that sap could be collected at averages of 50 degrees at night at 70 degrees during the day, Whynott said.

Reverse osmosis machines that reduce the water in the sap by 90 percent also save money on fuel before the sap is boiled into syrup in large modern-day evaporators.

New Hampshire doesn't produce much more than 1 percent of the total world crop, Bascom said.

"It's very much Vermont- and Quebec-dominated," Bascom said.

Quebec makes up 80 percent of the total world crop and Vermont makes up 10 percent, he said. Because of that, Canada sets market prices.

But the New Hampshire market is going strong in a world where maple syrup is in more and more demand, he said.

"I think New Hampshire producers are pretty optimistic right now," Bascom said.

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