“Is all maple syrup organic?” This is a question that most maple syrup enthusiasts have at one point asked themselves. Maple syrup is simply harvested from trees as sap and then boiled, so it should be organic, right? Well, as it turns out, the short answer is no. Not all maple syrup is organic. Organic maple syrup doesn't only require the finished product to be free from preservatives and pesticides, it also requires sustainable production and land management.
Typically maple tree stands and sugar brush, where maple syrup is harvested, are not chemically treated with pesticides or herbicides. Not using these chemicals would seem like maple syrup is, by default, organic. However, there are other factors producers must consider to officially label their maple syrup as 100% organic.
In Vermont, to be considered organic, producers must adhere to the Vermont Guidelines for Certification of Organic Maple Syrup & Sap. These guidelines are established under Vermont state law and define what constitutes organic maple syrup. These rules are created by the Vermont Organic Farmers, LLC, an arm of The Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) of Vermont, which works with and creates USDA regulations in the state. So, for a product to be considered organic, it must meet almost 11 pages of NOFA requirements (1).
What is organic maple syrup?
Organic maple syrup in Vermont must meet all of the NOFA requirements listed in its guidelines. That being said, there are tons of regulations for earning a 100% organic certification. These regulations and requirements have nothing to do with that have nothing to do with standard organic practices such as limiting pesticides, tree painting, herbicides, or synthetic defoamers sometimes used in boiling.
The NOFA defines organic maple sap and syrup production by the following:
“1) Cultural practices designed to maintain tree health and ensure the long-term preservation of the sugarbush as an ecosystem; Therefore, on rented land, a long-term lease is recommended. In addition, each landowner may have different requirements concerning tapping and forest management for its lessees. If you seek certification from VOF, you must be prepared to meet the standards regardless of what the landowner permits or what you have negotiated in your lease agreement.
2) The prohibition of synthetic materials added at various stages of management and production unless allowed on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances.”
In addition, the NOFA requires that “A wild crop must be harvested in a manner that ensures that such harvesting or gathering will not be destructive to the environment and will sustain the growth and production of the wild crop” (2).
Organic maple syrup requires sustainable harvesting practices
NOFA requires that all Vermont maple syrup producers factor long-term sustainability into their production. These requirements are lengthy and constitute a large portion of the 11-page regulatory document. The guidelines consist of categories that include and are not limited to:
- Tree species diversity
- Tree stand growth and regeneration
- Thinning and harvesting techniques
- Residual stand damage
- Forest soil and road conservation
- Tapping depth
- Syrup storage
- Facility sanitation
These guidelines are set to protect Vermont sugar stands and guarantee long-term environmental sustainability for organic maple syrup growers. Below is a quick summary of some of the most interesting and detailed requirements.
Tree species diversity
Ideally, organic maple sap production should come from a diverse ecosystem and not from a pure maple monoculture. This is because pure monocultures lacking other species limit nutrient cycling abilities and present an increased risk of the spread of insects and diseases.
Because of this, the NOFA requires that existing sugarbushes recently converted to organic production should comprise of at least 20% non-sugar maple trees for organic certification.
Tree conservation and stand regeneration
To keep and maintain a healthy forest ecosystem, it is important that organic maple syrup producers monitor and maintain the new and current growth of trees. The NOFA states that it is ideal for a maple forest to have mixed ages of trees. This will allow for continuous stand regeneration and long-term growth.
Thinning and harvesting techniques
When it comes to thinning and harvesting, the NOFA states that “Leaving branches, trees and woody debris in [a] forest is encouraged to improve the recycling of biomass." Farmers must leave material smaller than 3 inches the woods.
The NOFA holds this standard to strict scrutiny, as deviation could result in the loss of an organic certification.
Residual stand damages
Organic syrup producers must also take good care of their maple stands by minimizing the damage to trees during harvest time. According to NOFA documents, trees with 20% or more harvest-imposed damage must not be considered acceptable growing stock. Producers must also avoid passing machinery too frequently during and outside the production season, as maple tree roots lay shallow under the surface of the soil.
Soil and road protection
Soil and road protection is extremely important when it comes to sustainable and ecologically friendly maple harvesting. To preserve tree roots which lie close to the surface, roads in a tree stand should be kept to a minimum. However, if a road is required, proper soil erosion preventative techniques like ditching, water bars and maintaining vegetative cover. Soil compaction must be kept to a minimum to prevent erosion.
Tree tapping depth
To maintain sustainability, the number of taps per tree must be based on the diameter of the tree measured at breast height when there is no snow on the ground. The depth of the tap hole shall be no more than 2 inches not including the bark or 3 inches from the surface of the bark. Missing any of these steps could cause farmers to lose their organic production criteria.
Is it hard to grow organic maple syrup?
It may seem like these organic maple syrup regulations are too stringent for producers to follow. However, as it turns out, following these guidelines works in the favor of the organic syrup harvester. Most syrup producers already naturally follow these rules to maximize production and keep forests healthy
By growing sustainably, organic maple syrup growers can guarantee themselves a healthy and productive maple stand that will continue to produce and provide for generations to come.
Vermont Maple Syrup makes the best organic Vermont maple syrup, maple sugar, and maple candy you will taste. In classy, nostalgic packaging that puts Vermont first. Organic, pure small-batch maple syrup and maple sugar — tapped, collected, and made available from our 1,200-acre farm in the small town of Guilford, Vermont, USA.