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Updated: June 24, 2020

Mills to USDA: Add maple syrup to Coronavirus Food Assistance Program

File photo / JIM NEUGER Maine Maple Sunday is traditionally held the fourth Sunday of March.

Gov. Janet Mills called for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to include maple syrup as a specialty crop that can receive economic support through the federal Coronavirus Food Assistance Program. 

Maple syrup is currently ineligible for the program, and Maine's industry is suffering due to pandemic-related factors including price drops, event cancellations and restaurant closures, according to a letter Mills wrote to the USDA on June 19.

Maine's output maple syrup is the third-largest of any U.S. state, with 557 producers that tapped 580,000 gallons in 2019 at a value of $21.6 million. 

Including multiplier effects, the industry is responsible for an estimated $48.7 million in annual output, over 800 jobs, and $25.1 million in labor income, Mills wrote in her letter.

The federal government earmarked billions to support agricultural producers impacted by the pandemic. The USDA implemented the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program on May 20 to assist agricultural producers impacted by the effects of the pandemic. CFAP establishes provisions for direct payments to producers of eligible specialty and non-specialty crops.

The program offers support to specialty crop businesses that suffered price declines of at least 5%, faced significant new market costs because of COVID-19, or had losses due to market supply chain disruptions, the letter says.

“Maine maple syrup producers fit within this definition,” Mills wrote.

The pandemic struck just as the Maine maple syrup production season was beginning.

“The Maine season typically starts at the end of February/early March and finishes mid-April,” she wrote. “Maine maple syrup producers rely on this season for the majority of their sales, which consists of direct-to-consumer, wholesale and bulk sales.”

The pandemic canceled the annual Maine Maple Sunday event scheduled for March 21-22, which typically draws thousands of Mainers and tourists who visit sugar shacks for tours and demonstrations, and support producers through on-site purchases. In early March, just as the pandemic was arriving in Maine, Mills kicked off the state's annual maple sugaring season with a ceremonial tree-tapping on the lawn of the Blaine House in Augusta.

“The loss of this popular and profitable event has been devastating, especially for smaller producers who tend to make the bulk of their sales at that time," Mills wrote. "Significant losses that cannot be recovered by producers include advertising costs and expenditures associated with non-shelf stable inventory such as value-added maple products.”

Sales have been steady in grocery stores across North America, but with maple festivals, fairs and events canceled, restaurants closed and tourism curtailed, many producers have been unable to sell their 2020 product.

Domestic producers have already been under pressure from Canada, the largest producer of maple syrup. Bulk syrup prices have been falling from $2.26 in 2017 to a reported average bulk price of $2.06 being paid by bulk packers in New England this year.

Both Canada and the U.S. report a record-breaking volume in store for 2020. 

Mills wrote that federal help would "allow these producers to salvage the 2020 season and stay in business. Without such critical support, we fear that some producers will have to cease operations a blow for this otherwise robust and growing industry.”

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