The Maple Syrup Cartel
STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:
JANE LINDHOLM, HOST:
VANEK SMITH: Jane? Hello. Can you hear me?
LINDHOLM: Actually, hang on. Hang on, Stacey. I'm...
VANEK SMITH: Sure.
LINDHOLM: ...Just drilling a hole into the maple tree in my backyard. Hang on one second.
VANEK SMITH: That would be because...
LINDHOLM: Because it's Vermont. I'm a Vermonter. It's spring, of course.
VANEK SMITH: Yes, you are. And yes, it is.
LINDHOLM: That means it's time to make the maple syrup.
VANEK SMITH: Yes. And I - like, I kind of know about this process. But, like, how does this work, exactly? What do you do to get the syrup out of the tree?
LINDHOLM: OK. As you've heard, you drill a hole - and you don't drill it very deep - into a nice, sturdy maple tree. A sugar maple is the best.
VANEK SMITH: OK.
LINDHOLM: Then you hammer in a little tap, and it's got a hole in it so the sap can flow from the tap into a bucket that you put right below it.
VANEK SMITH: Like a little spigot.
LINDHOLM: Yeah, a little spigot that interrupts the flow of sap, and then that sap flows into a bucket. And you fill the bucket, and then you boil it down. And it takes 40 gallons of sap to make just one gallon of syrup.
VANEK SMITH: And Jane, we interrupted your little backyard drilling operation to get you to tell us about the big business of maple syrup, which has really big economic implications for Quebec and for your home state of Vermont.
This is THE INDICATOR. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.
LINDHOLM: And I'm Jane Lindholm. I'm the host of Vermont Edition, a daily show on Vermont Public Radio, and I host But Why, a podcast for curious kids. Today, big maple.
VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) To me, you know, it's always just been a breakfast condiment. But Jane, you know better because for places like Canada, this is a commodity of such strategic importance, such high value, that a government-sanctioned cartel has stockpiled thousands upon thousands of barrels of maple syrup.
LINDHOLM: My home state of Vermont really likes to play up its role as the United States' largest producer of maple syrup. Stacey, we made about 20 million pounds of syrup in 2018.
VANEK SMITH: So - OK. To me, that sounds like just an enormous amount of syrup. Twenty million pounds of syrup sounds formidable. But apparently, that is just nothing compared to Vermont's neighbor to the north, Quebec, because that one Canadian province alone made 118 million pounds of maple syrup in 2018. That is more than 70 percent of the entire world's supply.
LINDHOLM: And it is such a hugely valuable commodity that the price is completely controlled by a Canadian cartel made up of maple syrup producers in Quebec. The current price for a barrel of maple syrup right now is about 1,800 Canadian dollars.
VANEK SMITH: So is this barrel of maple syrup - like, is it - like, how big is it compared to, like, a barrel of oil?
LINDHOLM: It's, like, 58 gallons. And I think a barrel of oil is, like, 42, right?
VANEK SMITH: OK, so a barrel of syrup is actually bigger than a barrel of oil.
LINDHOLM: Yes, it is. But still, it's also way more expensive. I mean, it's something like 20 times the price of a barrel of oil for a barrel of maple syrup, so we're talking really, really expensive stuff. And it's so important to Canada that there's actually a global strategic reserve. In the middle of Quebec, there's a global strategic maple syrup reserve.
VANEK SMITH: Like the Strategic Petroleum Reserve that we have in the U.S.
LINDHOLM: Exactly, except it's full of barrels upon barrels of maple syrup. I actually went to go see what it looks like. I popped up over the border and went to this small town called Laurierville. It's, like, a total nondescript town in the middle of Quebec.
CAROLYN CYR: (Speaking French).
LINDHOLM: That's Carolyn Cyr. She works on the communications team for the Maple Syrup Producers of Quebec, and she took me on the path a barrel of syrup takes through the warehouse.
CYR: Here we are in the space where the producers can deliver their maple syrup in barrels. There's big squares on the floor. Those are scales because we need to weigh every barrel.
VANEK SMITH: So in Quebec - which, again, makes the lion's share of the world's maple syrup - anyone who wants to sell in bulk apparently has to contribute a portion of their finished maple syrup to this reserve. So here is how this works. The producers wait all year, and then they spend these, like, long, sticky days and nights boiling their sap into syrup. And then they give some of it to the reserve, and they don't get paid for it - at least not right away.
LINDHOLM: So sometimes that's just a few months. Other times, they have to wait a few years before that syrup sells and they get their money. So why would any farmer agree to wait years to get paid for their product?
VANEK SMITH: Yeah.
LINDHOLM: Because the global strategic reserve is actually a way to guarantee that high, high price for maple syrup by removing - totally removing the natural boom and bust cycle that would otherwise happen for an agricultural commodity.
VANEK SMITH: So this volatility apparently is just - is normal. And, you know, in good years, then there would be this flood of maple syrup, and the price would go way down. In a bad years, there, like, wasn't that much syrup at all, and prices could go way, way, way up.
LINDHOLM: Not great for producers, especially when they were trying to ramp up production for a growing global market, one that wasn't going to like that kind of fluctuation in supply or in cost. So in 2004, the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers created a quota system controlling production, and then they created this global strategic reserve to make sure that the supply never runs dry.
VANEK SMITH: So apparently, in good years, they just stockpile a ton of syrup so there's not, like, a flood on the market. And in bad years, then, they can dip into that reserve and fill in the gaps - so set prices, set buyers determined by the federation and delayed payments. So this is really different, of course, from the way that things work in the U.S. But this agricultural supply management - this kind of system - is very Canadian. There are price controls and quotas like this on eggs, chickens, turkeys and milk, not just syrup.
LINDHOLM: Right. So farmers are pretty used to this in Canada. And I should say, though, not everybody likes it. So there are a few sugar makers in Quebec who've actually gone rogue.
VANEK SMITH: Oh.
LINDHOLM: And they have tried, like, under cover of darkness, to sell in bulk to unauthorized buyers and tried to avoid being forced into this mandatory system where not only is the price set, but they have to give some of their syrup to the strategic reserve - except if you get caught doing this, you can be fined hundreds of thousands of dollars. So it's really risky for producers who've gone rogue. And Carolyn Cyr tells me most producers actually like this system. I mean, after all, the federation is made up of Quebec maple syrup producers, so they're the ones who are setting these rules. And a number of surveys have backed up what she says.
VANEK SMITH: And at least as far as the maple syrup goes, the producers are pretty much reaping the rewards of a system that keeps the price high and, you know, makes their business a lot more predictable. And Cyr says exports have hit records every year for the last five or six years. And most of that syrup, of course, is going to one place in particular.
CYR: For sure, it's your country (laughter) - United States. We send 62 percent of our maple syrup exportation to your country. So thank you. But the next one is Germany. It has increased its imports for over 12 percent per year since 2009.
LINDHOLM: A lot of countries are really demanding organic maple syrup, so organic producers get a premium. And the idea is that you have this reserve that can sell more organic maple syrup when the organic maple syrup season isn't so good. But it's not totally flawless. In 2008, the reserve went totally dry.
VANEK SMITH: Whoa.
LINDHOLM: It was after, I think, four or five bad sugaring years. And so they just kept selling out of the reserve, and there was suddenly no more syrup. And so that sent the federation into total panic mode, and they released more of these licenses, these quotas, in 2009. And then, as you heard, the global demand has continued to increase. So they gave out another round in 2016 for about 5 million new taps.
VANEK SMITH: Well, apparently, the strategic reserve right now has a total of 160,000 barrels of maple syrup, which is - feels like a lot.
LINDHOLM: And Stacey, it is amazing to see it. These barrels are stacked six barrels high and 80 deep. And they're so heavy that if they stack them any higher, the whole tower of maple syrup would just collapse under its own weight. The total amount in the reserve - which is divided, again, up among these three places - is worth 280 million Canadian dollars. That's more than 200 million U.S. dollars.
VANEK SMITH: That is - that's incredible amount of money. And, you know, it's very inspiring, too. I mean, what about, you know, Jane, your personal strategic maple reserve? How's your tree doing?
LINDHOLM: Oh, God. I'm terrible. I'm a terrible sugarer. I have one tree, and I still cannot make it give me any sap. In fact, my husband thinks that I'm tapping an oak tree every year.
VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).
LINDHOLM: So I'm going to be lucky if I get a tablespoon. But I tell you what - that one mouthful - boy, is it sweet. We're looking forward to it.
VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) You can just send it down here.
LINDHOLM: I will be sending you a teaspoon (laughter).
VANEK SMITH: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Constanza Gollardo. Our intern and fact-checker is Willa Rubin. Our editor is Paddy Hirsch. And THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.
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