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CABOT, Vermont (Reuters) - This season's $60 a gallon price tag on maple syrup makes for one expensive pancake breakfast, but it's a windfall for those who coax it out of trees.
A surge in the price of maple syrup has brought new opportunity to thousands of small, mostly family-run businesses in the United States and Canada that produce the sweet, aromatic treat.
For the past decade, rising energy prices had put a squeeze on syrup makers, who spend frigid late-winter evenings in steamy huts boiling the watery maple sap to make the thick, amber syrup that sweetens breakfasts around the world. Sugarers burn oil or wood to boil the sap and the prices of both fuels have risen sharply over the past few years.
That pressure on profit margins has eased following a doubling in the price paid by big buyers to about $44 a gallon ($11 a liter) in just two years. The spike in prices reflects several bad seasons in the Canadian province of Quebec, the world's largest producer of maple syrup.
The cold winters sharply reduced production while demand has stayed relatively constant.
"It actually feels like we're maybe, finally getting paid what it's really worth," said Marcia Maynard, who along with her husband, Ken Denton, runs Cabot Hills Maple in Vermont. "It feels like we're starting to come out ahead."
Maynard and Denton started making syrup in 2002 on their 100-acre (40 hectare) plot in Cabot, population 1,213, just 60 miles south of the Canadian border.
"We've had a relatively recent investment in equipment and so we're still working on paying that off," said Maynard, who makes syrup in a 14-foot (4 meter) long trough called an evaporator, which boils the sap to remove water.
"The price increases really help us feel like we're going to get there," she said.
The rise is enough that Maynard and Denton plan to drill tap holes into another 2,000 trees on a neighbor's property, which will boost their syrup output -- which has ranged from 1,600 gallons (7,300 liters) to 2,200 gallons (10,000 liters) per year -- by about 50 percent.
They are not alone in planning to expand.
"With the prices suddenly jumping up, people have been very interested in expanding their operation, and it is something you can expand pretty quickly," said Timothy Perkins, who runs the University of Vermont's Proctor Maple Research Center.
"Maple is one of the bright spots of agriculture right now," said Jacques Couture, a syrup maker and president of the Vermont Maple Foundation. "We have quite a few producers who actually added taps -- they've invested more money into their business. People are like that when there's money to be made."
Couture's Maple Shop, in Westfield, Vermont, taps 7,500 trees and produces 2,000 to 2,500 gallons (9,092 to 11,370 liters) of syrup a year.
The syrup-making season is short, typically lasting a month, and is entirely dependent on the weather.
Sugarers gather sap as winter changes to spring, when temperatures drop to around 20 degrees Fahrenheit (-6.66 Celsius) overnight and warm up to about 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4.44 C) during the day. Once overnight temperatures stop dropping below freezing, the sap starts to taste bitter and the season ends.
After several poor years in Canada, the 2008 season was disastrous for producers in that country and the northernmost parts of Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. Freezing temperatures lasted longer than usual and when spring arrived it came quickly, leaving a short window to produce syrup.
Production in Quebec, which makes about 80 percent of the world's maple syrup, plummeted by 32 percent from 2004 through 2008, reflecting brutal winters that produced little syrup.
During that slump, producers in that Canadian province sold off their estimated 5 million gallons (23 million liters) of reserves. By late last year, bulk syrup buyers -- who secure supplies for supermarket chains and commercial users -- were having a hard time buying syrup at any price.
"The pipeline is empty. There is no maple syrup," said Bob Jakeman, owner of family-run Jakeman's Maple Products, based in Beachville, Ontario. "A lot of the packers in Quebec, the larger ones, ran out of syrup in November and December."
Jakeman, whose family has been making maple syrup since 1873, had to turn down some orders for syrup this winter.
While syrup-makers welcome the higher prices, most admit they fear the cost could become too much for consumers to swallow. Retail prices are approaching $60 a gallon, though most consumers buy smaller containers.
"The price that producers are getting is great, but you can only afford to keep that going for as long as the people who are selling it can extract it from the marketplace," said Jeffrey Carr, president of Economic & Policy Resources Inc, a consulting firm in Williston, Vermont.
At Whole Foods Market Inc, the largest publicly held U.S. natural foods retailer, sales of maple syrup have remained steady, said spokeswoman Libba Letton.
"We're always watching for those signs, because you can live without maple. And I always wonder when too much is too much," said Dale Wentworth of Warren Farm in North Brookfield, Massachusetts, which produces about 600 to 1,300 gallons (2,700 to 5,900 liters) of syrup per year. "I honestly haven't seen a lot of grumbling and I thought I would hear it."
But Couture, who also raises dairy cattle and runs a bed-and-breakfast at his 117-year-old farmhouse, is wary. "You wonder what that tipping point is," Couture said. "Maybe some of that has been reached already."
Additional reporting by Claire Sibonney in Toronto; Editing by Doina Chiacu, Jason Szep and Philip Barbara