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Maple producers prepping for 2015 switch to uniform grading system

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While the upcoming maple season may be business as usual for New York sugarmakers, 2015 will usher in a uniform grading system intended to ease consumer choices, particularly in newly tapped markets.

“In my opinion, I think it’s a good move,” said Nadeen R. Lyndaker, president of the Lewis County Maple Producers Association, which also has members in Jefferson, Oswego and Oneida counties. “Everybody will be the same.”

With a continuing push to reach new markets, including overseas ones like China, it makes sense to use the same names to identify grades of syrup, no matter where it comes from, Mrs. Lyndaker said.

And, since producers may either switch immediately or hold off until next year, they should be able to use up any old labels before buying new ones.

A standard grading system also appeals to St. Lawrence County producer C. Douglas Thompson, a former president of that county’s Maple Producers Association.

“It’s been in discussion for 10 years. It’s nothing really new. Basically, it’s a name change,” he said. “The main thing I want to see as a producer is for people to eat more syrup.”

The state Department of Agriculture and Markets last summer approved the uniform labeling standards, proposed by the International Maple Syrup Institute. Other maple-producing states and Canadian provinces are also implementing or considering similar standards.

New York syrup is now labeled as Grade A light, medium or dark amber, Grade A extra dark, Grade B or commercial grade, depending on lightness or darkness of color.

The new categories, which eliminate the Grade B classification, will be as follows:

n Grade A golden, delicate taste

n Grade A amber,rich taste

n Grade A dark, robust taste

n Grade A very dark, strong taste

n Processing grade, which may not be sold directly to consumers for household use

While most commenting on the state’s rule change last year were in favor, the Lewis County-based Northern New York Maple Producers Co-Op and one of its members, Warren L. Allen, submitted written comments in opposition, and Mr. Allen, a long-time Croghan producer who now lives in Watertown, testified against it.

Points of contention were that the new grade descriptions aren’t descriptive enough to properly inform consumers and that labeling lesser qualities of syrup as Grade A may cause customer disappointment. Mr. Allen in oral testimony also suggested that large purchasers of syrup may have no incentive to buy higher quality syrup — negatively affecting those who produce a lighter product — because they could still sell darker syrup as Grade A.

“It’s a very disappointing thing that’s coming along here,” Mr. Allen said Tuesday.

The long-time producer said he has purchased syrup from Canada in the past that had an “unacceptable flavor” and is worried that people could wind up buying poorer qualities of syrup in the supermarket that would sour them on the product.

Mr. Allen reiterated the concern that unscrupulous packers could “pull a fast one” by passing off poorer-quality product as Grade A. “It’s a perspective problem as much as anything,” he said.

While popular among those in the know who like a dark syrup with a stronger flavor, Grade B syrup may be misinterpreted by other consumers, said Michael L. Farrell, the maple program coordinator for Northern New York and director of Cornell University’s Uihlein Forest in Lake Placid. “Would you ever go to the store and look for Grade B eggs?” he said.

Calling the same grade of syrup “Fancy” in Vermont, “Light Amber” in New York and “No. 1 Extra Light” in Canada creates problems with distribution, Mr. Farrell added.

“People expect one thing and they get another,” he said.

Some consumers may also be confused over the term “light,” thinking that means fewer calories, Mr. Farrell said.

“While many producers are concerned about the changes that this is bringing about, the opportunity to have all states using the same terminology for consumers is important and will allow consumers better knowledge as they travel about,” said Michele E. Ledoux, executive director at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Lewis County. “And literature can now all be incorporated into one universal language talking about maple syrup.”

While change is not always easy, Helen M. Thomas, executive director of the New York State Maple Association, said her 600-plus-member organization considers the move — featuring classifications developed through market research — the best option for a global market.

“I think this is very positive for the consumer,” she said.

The state association director said the main issue she is hearing from producers now is not whether the switch is a good idea but when the state will release specific policies for implementation and enforcement.

Boosted by technological advances and incentives, maple production is “skyrocketing,” jumping from around 250,000 gallons to almost 600,000 gallons over the past 15 years in New York state alone, Ms. Thomas said.

That makes it imperative that syrup sellers cater more to the “global customer,” not just traditional ones, she said.

Mrs. Thomas noted that the new standards will alter only the information in a small circle on syrup labels, allowing producers to still have plenty of labeling leeway. “What else you put on the container is totally up to you,” she said.

In Vermont, where the transition to the new grading system is in full swing, Coombs Family Farms has developed promotional materials intended to explain and tout the switch.

“The ultimate goal is to ease the buyers’ confusion about what the grades are,” Arnold Coombs of Coombs Family Farms said in a 3-minute video. “And so that ultimately should allow us to sell more, because a confused consumer doesn’t buy necessarily.”

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