Berkshire Sweet Gold Maple Farm
Published in the Massachusetts Sugarbush News, Winter/2009
Variance Harvesting/Processing/Marketing & the Price-Point Spread: How Customers and Their Maple Farmers can Co-Generate Sustainable Agriculture and a Fair Wage
Janis Steele Ph.D. and Brooks McCutchen Ph.D
Sustainable: it's a word that gets a lot of airplay these days. Below, we lay out an argument that in agriculture –in this case, maple agriculture-- sustainable behavior must be situated between consumers and farmers in order to anchor connections between food production and consumption that can respond to the growing environmental crisis. There are many compelling longitudinal scientific arguments describing rapid climate change: here in Western MA, according to foresters and in our experience, these are dramatically changing times for our forest biomes. The ice storm that hit our region last December is only the latest element in a series of weather and biological occurrences over the last decade which must be considered in relation to each other to understand the long-term health of a forest. Our customers often ask about maples disappearing due to climate change and they wonder how we , the harvesters, will survive when our way of life is no longer tenable. One way we begin to answer this query is to cite the words of farmer and poet Wendell Berry, to assert that everyone, no matter where they live, participates in agriculture: “ eating is an agricultural act” . Food is a basic pathway for all of us to engage the environment and changes underway and to work together, as farmers and consumers, to develop sustainable practices .
In this article “variance harvesting/processing/marketing ” means all of the different elements and activities that go into producing and marketing maple syrups as a food stock. These can include the following:
--The centuries-long social history of maple as a household staple with many uses, as both a political
and economic competitor of cane sugar; unique to this part of the world yet shaped and
characterized by regional diversity
--The physics, chemistry and biology that occur during growth, harvesting and processing.
--Management & harvesting practices that enhance variance such as organic practices and conservation
practices which also support forest ecosystem biodiversity.
--Influences from weather and climatological shifts, including climate change.
--Techniques used to process the crop into a food stock where variance can be enhanced including
energy conservation strategies that can refine how heat is applied.
–And perhaps most importantly, how customers' general understanding of these variant processes are
reflected in social practices, that is, the way they talk, shop and eat food. As journalist and food
theorist Michale Pollan often notes “consumers vote with their forks.”
Potentially, science-based and historical facts drawn from these elements can be communicated to customers as part of a market relationship beneficial to both them and harvesters. For example, when customers are informed and knowledgeable about maple agriculture and the ways the crop has been harvested and processed, their selection and consumption can become more personal, m eaning intellectually,emotionally and socially invested. As a result, this knowledgeable customer base can influence how farmers operate on their land and produce their syrups, and ultimately can support a fairer wage for farmers: all in all, a more sustainable agriculture. It is this set of relationships which we define as “value enhancing” a crop.
Value enhanced agriculture supports a broader “price-point spread” where substantial differences exist between lower-priced commodity products and higher-priced artisanal food stocks. For example, consider the following different agricultural products. In the United States a relatively robust price-point spread exists within wine, cheese, coffee & vinegar markets and a relatively flat price-point spread is often found in milk, chicken, fish (by species), potatoes, corn and wheat. In some markets, like chicken and beef, price-point spreads are expanding as customer crop/processing knowledge increases and they ask for free-range birds and grass-fed beef. While “value adding” to a crop can also expand the price-point spread of food stocks, it does not necessarily offer the long term advantages that support a healthy price point spread and sustainable practices. For example, in cases where the emphasis is on packaging, price-point advantages are self-limiting as customers “label shop” but do not acquire any significant knowledge about the food . If, as farmers, our goal is for customers to engage with their food in creative/healthy ways that enhance fair wages for farmers and sustainable agricultural practices, we must return to fundamental, science-based information that supports meaningful relationships between consumers, harvesters, land and water.
Maple syrup markets currently exhibit a relatively flat price-point spread, occurring whether crop yields increase or decrease internationally. This reflects customers' limited understanding of the agriculture and narrowly defined uses of maple. For example at BSG-farm we interact with over 40,000 potential customers annually in direct markets along the Eastern seaboard. The vast majority of this public erroneously consider maple to be one single strong flavor, highly fattening, and just for pancakes. If this perception were left intact few of them would taste our syrups let alone make a purchase. Numerous individuals may also inform us that they hear Grade B is considered the premium and most costly syrup and the only one to cook with. If individuals know about “grades” of syrup they typically consider them to come from the tree or from “cooking down”.
Customers both reflect and drive trends in a marketplace. Last year Grade B surpassed other syrup prices at stores like Trader Joe's, (A historical first?) and now perhaps a majority of Northeast farmers blend Grade B with colors like Light Amber to produce the consistent breakfast food tastes of Grade A Medium & Dark. Producers operating within this commodity food structure, regardless of their farm size, will tend to carry wholesale/retail accounts larger than they can harvest for because price-point spreads are flat and profit margins are correspondingly tight. They then may supplement with bulk syrups from distributors to be packaged under their label guaranteeing supply to stores and protection of highly competitive shelf-space.
Direct market, family-scale farms provide a portal where customers can learn the science facts and history of an agriculture and thus employ farmers using sustainable practices and seeking fair wages. At BSG-farm effective marketing relies on science-based “framing concepts” that engage customers and invite them to participate as core drivers of the farm's efforts to harvest and process syrups in ways that “ value enhance ” the crop. (We do also practice value-adding which we consider to be a secondary and sometimes problematic market layer.)
To follow are some key points we often use when inviting customers to taste BSG Farm's “Single-Crop, Single-Batch” maple syrups at direct market events which may help illuminate aspects of the re-framing process. These points are drawn from varied sources like the Maple Syrup Producers Manual, UVM Proctor research, the Nearing's 1950 Maple Sugar Book and experienced maple farmers who have taught us over the years:
--That maple is arguably ours and Canada's oldest agriculture, properly a competitor of cane sugar. Maple often out-sold cane sugar in many communities and continues today to be a versatile ingredient for sweetening, glazes, reductions or to balance sour and savory seasonings on meats, in vegetables dishes, and much more.
--That maple is a unique wild forest harvest whose tastes are composed of complex tree chemistry, fermentation by numerous yeast strains outside the tree responding to the weather, and the farmer's processing techniques where bio-chemistry (like the Maillard reaction versus caramelization [pyrolysis]) will vary widely and influence flavors depending on training and market structure.
--That maple is lower in calories than they presume, with fewer calories than honey, agave and cane sugar. That cane sugar is non-nutritive and continues to price low as it always has based on abusive labor and environmental practices. In contrast, maple syrup is high in minerals, particularly calcium, and has a low glycemic index. Maple harvesters seek a fair wage through sustainable harvesting in a wild ecosystem.
--That maple emerges from the forest as a potential array of color/flavors as diverse as an ale to a stout, or white to red wine, with complex finish flavors. That “Grade A” typically involves blending these colors, passively or actively, to better suit the generic standards of wholesale markets which created the modern breakfast-food focus for the crop.
--That at BSG-farm syrups are managed in 45 minute “batches” of exposure to heat where color/flavors can change dramatically within a given day. Customers are offered sample tastes while we market the science of the crop. (80% of energy for harvesting/processing is solar powered, 6/10 of one gallon of oil per gallon of syrup produced).
--That healthy agricultures depend on an informed customer base and usually exhibit a range of processing methods from homogenized commodity products to variance harvested/processed food stocks which knowledgeable customers can choose between and thus leave “label shopping” behind.
--That there is an embedded relationship between customer knowledge, healthy eating, sustainable agriculture and a shift in customer resources away from other commodities and towards carefully handled foods. (Currently Americans put only 9% of their capital liquidity into food, a worldwide low.)
BSG-maple farm has been in operation for 12 years and provides the sole source of income for a family of five harvesting 4,600 maple trees occupying land that is, as for other farmers, a wild ecosystem. Over this brief time, we have seen significant changes on the farm due to environmental stresses and are compelled to locate our experience in the broader context of these times. This work in progress continues to draw assistance from other farmers, environmental scientists, researchers and those involved in the realms of food politics and harvesting policy to work towards enhancing strengths of family-scale farming and direct markets: by establishing community relationships that support healthy eating, sustainable harvesting and land a fair wage for farmers. We welcome any dialogue or reactions you would like to offer to this paper.
Janis & Brooks have recently been presenting on these themes to Northeast farmers at the Mass. Maple Association's annual picnic and at the
Mass. Dept. of Agriculture's 2009 Harvest New England Conference. They will run a workshop on variance agriculture this January 2010 at the Northeast Organic Farmers Association Conference in Worcester. (See NOFA's website for schedules.) Janis & Brooks are available to consult with farmers building robust fair-wage & sustainable direct-market practices for their crops.