For many who buy organically grown produce, their main concern is chemicals on their food. As an organic grower, I understand the inclination, not comprehending why one would put poison on something they are going to eat. There are some organically certified items, however, that no doubt elicit a bit of eye-rolling. Have you ever seen a bunch of organically-grown flowers and thought, “Who cares, I wasn’t serving the dahlias for dinner?” The same applies to that shirt made of organically grown cotton. And if maple syrup is made from sap that runs from wild maple trees, with no herbicides or pesticides in the equation either way, what is the difference between organic and non-organic? I grew organically certified vegetables on our farm for over 14 years and to answer that question, it may be easier to explain exactly what “certified organic” means. Eye-rolling is entirely appropriate for many of the silly things we see on the shelves (google “egg cuber”) but perhaps this will explain what it is you are supporting when you buy anything “certified organic.”
For maple syrup, there is only one chemical that gets anywhere near syrup production and that is the defoamer. When the sap is at a raging boil on its way to becoming syrup, a sugarmaker needs to control the foam in the pan or end up with a mess. Non-organic producers use a chemical, though obviously food-safe defoamer and organic producers use organic safflower or canola oil. For either operation, it is a mere drop of oil per hundreds of gallons of syrup.
The real difference in organic vs. non-organic is the assurance that an organic producer has treated his or her woods, not as a sap factory but as a living ecosystem. For us to be certified organic, we need to show we have maintained biodiversity in our forest. Some producers cut down everything that is not a maple tree leaving a monoculture that skews the balance of a natural forest. We have a minimum size tree we are allowed to tap with rules about where on the tree we can tap to maintain long-term health for the tree. Our roads through the woods have to be maintained so there is no runoff of soil into the stream. We have to show best practices for wildlife habitat such as leaving dead trees standing and limbs on the ground. If we follow organic standards for maple syrup, a sugarbush is actually one of the best examples of agriculture and wildlife not only coexisting but thriving.
Sap is now harvested from over 1,000 acres of forest across Vermont. How producers treat their forest is having an increasingly large impact on the natural environment of New England as a whole. There are plenty of non-certified producers who care a great deal about the health of their forest but buying certified organic means you are absolutely sure the forest your syrup came from is protected. It is the same for any other commodity you purchase that is certified. Not only did your support go toward preventing chemicals ending up in your kitchen, but an entire acreage of production whether it is lettuce or flowers or cotton or a stand of maple trees is a friendly player in the bigger ecosystem that surrounds it.