Branon maple syrup

Cecile Branon poses with bottles of Branon’s Maple Syrup. The pandemic has forced many maple sugar operations to adjust.

FAIRFIELD — For Cecile Branon, this year is a little different at Branon Family Maple Orchards in Fairfield. As COVID-19 numbers in Franklin County rise, the seventh-generation syrup producer is being forced to alter operations.

“Our guidelines are that our retail shop will be open but we’ll see where we are when sugaring season comes, whether we allow people around the evaporator,” says Branon.

Branon has 93,000 taps. Last year, the pandemic closed sugar houses across Vermont and shut down many of the retailers that they ship to. Branon says that as a larger sugar maker they were looking at huge losses.

“The initial hit in March, April was terrible. All of our restaurants that we sell to — everyone across the country of course — was in shut down, so we went from shipping two or three pallets a month to shipping no pallets a month,” says Branon.

She and her team of four had to brainstorm ways to keep their operation afloat in uncertain times.

“We have an account with a company out west and they do, more or less, a farmer’s market online and they offer drive-through or delivery because they’re in the city. That market went crazy,” she says.

She says that the online company, as well as the retail segment of the business, has really been a saving grace. Branon’s also has a line of non-traditional maple products — but this year they got even more creative.

“We came out with a new product, a new packaging style, for maple syrup in the fall. That’s called ‘Maple to Go.’ It's a 3.4 ounce, closable pouch for maple syrup so that you can travel with it anywhere. So, we’re making the best of everything ... We keep everything positive,” Branon said.

In Vermont, maple syrup is big business. Last year, according to Allison Hope, the executive director of the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers’ Association, Vermont produced just over 2 million gallons of syrup, more than any other state. New York is next, averaging about 760,000 gallons per year; Maine is third at just over 700,000. Quebec is the biggest maple syrup producer in the world, making more than 6.5 million gallons a year.

“I think that a lot of sugar makers have done a great job learning how to sell their products online when they might not otherwise have. And they do a good job with curbside service. They want to sell their product,” says Hope.

While she says there are no specific guidelines for sugar houses, many, this year, are choosing to keep their boiling rooms closed to visitors.

People can come in ... masks are required just like every business in the state but we’ll see where we are later on in the sugaring season and whether we decide to open the boiling room. We’re going to have to see that numbers in Franklin County drop,” says Branon.

Hope says that they want everyone to enjoy the syrup, but to be conscientious while doing it. That’s also the reason for the recent cancellation of Maple Open House Weekend.

“Sugar makers are really focused this time of year on bringing their crop in from the field, So we want to make sure they have the space to focus on that and be safe,” says Hope.

For Branon, the adjustments will continue until COVID-19 ends, but they began boiling this week and are anticipating being open for retail customers next week.

“All you can do is the best you can do. The rest is left up to mother nature and what we get but you just have to do the best you can do,” says Branon.{p dir=”ltr”}

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