Maple Industry Is Poised for Growth
EUP Producers See Strong Potential in Wider Market, as Organic Products Open the Door
Maple syrup producer RMG Family Sugarbush of Rudyard is on the verge of a major expansion. The company will become Michigan Maple Farms in about a month, with an emphasis on its organic line of maple products. The company has distribution agreements pending with Meijer and Whole Foods Market, which plan to introduce the company’s products at their stores in phases.
The expansion means RMG will increase output, enabling it to pay more for the syrup it buys from smaller companies in the area and across the state. The expansion will make Michigan a stronger part of the international maple food products market and the company plans to supply stores throughout the United States. RMG may also build a new bottling plant, said owner Mike Ross Wednesday, May 13.
“The maple industry is ready to explode,” he told The St. Ignace News. “It’s organic that finally opened the door.”
Whole Foods is interested exclusively in organic maple food products. Meijer is interested in organic and non-organic products. The term organic refers to food grown without pesticides or synthetic fertilizers.
A year from now, Mr. Ross expects to be bottling 50% to 75% more maple syrup. Varying year-toyear by the crop, the company has been handling 75,000 to 125,000 gallons a year. Some comes from RMG’s 22,000-tap tree farm; the rest is provided by farms throughout the Eastern Upper Peninsula and as far away as Indiana and Wisconsin.
The largest buyer of bulk maple syrup, and the largest supplier of maple products equipment and supplies in the state, RMG is actively promoting Michigan’s burgeoning industry. Mr. Ross says only about 460,000 of Michigan’s 300 million maple trees, less than 1%, are tapped, so there is potential for growth. Quebec and Vermont tap 33% to 35% of their trees.
Seventy one percent of the world’s pure maple syrup comes from Canada. Providing 90% of Canada’s syrup, Quebec is the world’s leading producer. But Mr. Ross says Michigan has an advantage over other states and provinces because it has the best maple trees in the region. Soil and a longer growing season contribute to better output.
Maple ingredients are included in a variety of RMG products, including a whiskey-infused maple syrup, a barbeque sauce with maple in it, and mustard with maple sweetener. The company is the state’s largest producer of maple cream. RMG uses cherries, blueberries, and raspberries in its fruit-infused syrups, and also sells maple sugar and coated nuts.
To promote Michigan as a maple syrup producer, Mr. Ross joined Cedarville-area producer Dan Tassier of Tassier Sugar Bush and Craig Waldron of the Alanson-based Far Hills Maple Syrup to form the new Commercial Maple Syrup Producers of Michigan (CMSPM). With 45 companies in its ranks so far, the association is raising public awareness about the maple food industry’s potential in Michigan. The association wants to increase tap counts, make Michigan brands more recognizable, and work with universities and government to research the untapped potential of Michigan maple products.
RMG is applying for funds from United States Department of Agriculture Rural Development through its Value Added Producer Grant program, which pays up to 50% of costs related to company expansions. Rural Development also offers the Rural Energy for America Program, which reimburses producers up to 25% for costs to add energy-saving equipment such as reverse osmosis systems used by maple products companies. Both programs have been used by maple food companies in Michigan and are applicable to other crops. The application deadline for Value Added Producer Grants is July 7. The deadline for the Rural Energy for America Program application is June 30.
Maple food products could be promoted through the state’s Pure Michigan program, they say. Michigan producers can be competitive with Vermont for recognition as a maple producer, and may qualify for federal funding through the Farm Bill.
An older organization with a different focus, the Michigan Maple Syrup Association continues to promote the maple products industry by promoting maple farm tourism, acknowledging maple syrup as an important part of state history, and encouraging landowners to get involved. This includes landowners who aren’t necessarily interested in becoming commercial producers, such as those with hobby farms and home producers who sell maple products at farmers markets. The association also encourages the use of maple food products as alternative sweeteners.
The association organizes Michigan Maple Syrup Weekend in March to promote tours by local producers. RMG is one of the locally participating maple farms. Like others in the area, it started out modestly and grew.
A three-generation Rudyard family business, RMG started out with 25 taps in the late 1980s and grew to include 22,000. The company’s facility has about 21,000 square feet to process and store maple food products. The facility has capacity to handle more and if RMG builds a larger plant in the future, it stands to double employment from 10 to 20, Mr. Ross said.
CMSPM is reaching out to a broader audience by providing business tools for developing companies. The association is sponsoring an educational seminar entitled Business of Maple Syrup Friday, August 28 and Saturday, August 29, at Treetops Resort in Gaylord. Setup begins Friday at 11 a.m. The exposition begins at 3 p.m. and runs until 9 p.m. Saturday hours will be 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. The cost to attend is $50 in advance and $75 at the door. Vendors pay $125 per booth. The seminar will include speakers from Michigan, Quebec, and Vermont. For more information, call (906) 478-3038.