New P6 Member: Maple Valley Syrup Cooperative

P6’s newest wholesale member is Maple Valley Cooperative!

P6 is excited to introduce Maple Valley Co-op as our newest wholesale member! Maple Valley produces certified organic grade A and B Maple Syrup, Sugar, Candy, and Cream. Just as it takes high quality coffee producers and roasters to create excellent coffee, it also takes dedicated organic maple farmers and artisan bottlers to blend the most nutritious maple syrup for the finest color and flavor.

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Now based out of Cashton, Wisconsin, Maple Valley was originally founded by Cecil Wright and two friends in 1991. A lifelong maple farmer himself, Cecil also worked at Organic Valley for 18 years, offering him experience that fueled the inspiration and expertise to shift Maple Valley’s business structure into a cooperative in 2007.

I spoke with Cecil, who is also the current board president, about Maple Valley, its role in P6, and his vision for a cooperative economy:

Maple Valley as a Co-op

Maple Valley Co-op’s mission is “to produce and market the finest organic maple products with fair and sustainable methods, while respecting farmers, our customers, our vendors, our employees, the land and our communities.”

Maple Valley is the only all-organic maple syrup cooperative based in the United States, with 15 farmer members tapping trees in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio, New York, and Vermont. They’re growing fast. In 2014, their sales were just over $825,000; in 2015, they are budgeted to have $1.7 million in revenues. That growth is backed up with strong values and democratic ownership.

Cup of maple

At Maple Valley, farmers, employees, customers (meaning stores that buy maple syrup as well as individuals), vendors (meaning people and businesses that provide services to the co-op), and investors can all become members in different classes. While everyone gets a voice, the governance of the co-op is set up so that farmers get three seats on the Board of Directors, and each other class elects one of the remaining four seats. This way, farmers must be on board with most decisions that are made, and their perspective remains at the center of the business.

Maple Valley Cooperative: Meet your Maple Farmers from DriftlessDigital on Vimeo.

Maple Valley and P6

Maple Valley products are labeled as P6 in all P6 stores because they always meet two out of the three P6 requirements. All stores count Maple Valley as small and cooperative, because it is a cooperative of small farmers. For our Upper Midwest member stores, Maple Valley also meets the third requirement to be local.

Maple Valley (Cecil in particular) has been instrumental in defining the role of wholesale members within P6. Cecil says he’s grateful for the opportunity to market the cooperative advantage when he talks with food co-ops around the country. He says, “P6 gives us a more programmatic way to keep the cooperative economy in front of the food co-ops. It’s a helpful way of educating our cooperative stores about what a cooperative economy looks like.“ Cecil’s experience developing the five different membership classes at Maple Valley has helped P6 to develop our wholesaler class.

Maple Valley and the Cooperative Economy

Managing a multi-stakeholder cooperative has large challenges but also large benefits. The big challenge is that all the different classes of members have slightly different interests — customers want lower prices, workers and producers want higher compensation, and investors want consistent returns. In navigating these different interests, Cecil emphasizes the importance of fairness and providing just compensation for the work the farmers do. The benefits, according to Cecil, outweigh the costs: “The multi-stakeholder model gives everyone an opportunity to join and say they’re contributing. It allows for more people to touch the cooperative economy. They can be members and participate.” In an ideal world, in addition to selling to cooperative grocery stores, Maple Valley would also be served by a trucking cooperative, a glass manufacturing cooperative, and more. Cecil invoked the Mondragon Cooperatives in Spain, where that kind of cooperative economy is more developed.

Maple Valley Mike, Eric, Renee, Adrienne, Cecil

In Vernon County, where Cecil lives, the cooperative economy already has a strong foothold. Cecil estimated that there are 30-40 co-ops there, filling every need from food to electricity to telephones to banking to maple syrup. Organic Valley is a huge anchor for cooperatives and for sustainable food in the region.

Cecil said that a big turning point for him around understanding the importance of cooperatives was re-imagining the question of efficiency. The dominant economic system in America claims efficiency, he explained, but when big corporate investors expect a 10-15% return, “it’s totally inefficient to me because it puts money into other people’s hands. It takes away resources and money from the business to make that kind of profit.” Maple Valley has chosen to create a class for investors and to set a goal of providing a 6.5% return on that investment. This allows the business to get the start-up capital it needed and to make good on rewarding that investment without disregarding the needs of other parts of the business. Keeping money in the business and keeping decision-making shared over a diversity of stake holders leads to a more efficient use of resources, even if it takes longer to make decisions.

Maple Valley‘s sap harvest

Adrienne Fox, Maple Valley’s Sales and Marketing Representative, and Bjorn Bergman, Viroqua Food Co-op’s P6 coordinator (who also worked a few years with Cecil harvesting sap) share the following explanation of the maple sugaring process:

“As spring approaches and the days become warmer, maple trees move out of winter hibernation. The trees begin to send sap, composed of sugars stored in their roots, up into their branches during days that reach temperatures above 40 degrees. When it drops below freezing at night, the sap flows back down toward the roots. When the sap flows, farmers tap!

Maple Valley Co-op --Some of our local maple tree tops

During the day the maple farmer drills a hole in the trunk and lightly taps in a plastic or steel tap, which diverts some of the maple sap out of the tree into a collection system. Some maple farmers use traditional methods to collect sap with buckets or bags. More modern methods employ plastic tubing strung between the trees, where the sap flows downhill through the tubing into a central collection stainless steel tank.

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Once farmers collect the sap, they walk, truck or pump it back to their sugar shack where it’s processed. Most of Maple Valley’s farmers use reverse osmosis systems to remove excess water in the sap, prior to boiling it in an evaporator. These osmosis systems create efficiency and reduce energy needed for evaporators. Once the sap reaches an approximate 66% sugar and 34% water mark, it’s filtered and hot packed into 40 or 55 gallon drums and eventually shipped to the co-op commercial kitchen facility, which is both organic and kosher certified. Maple Valley’s artisan bottler then blends the re-inspected barrels to the finest color, flavor, and brix level. Bottles and other containers are commercially hot packed and labeled for long term safe maple storage.“

Jim and Eric laying out the lines

Maple Valley and the maple syrup industry

Maple syrup is a notoriously inconstant industry. How much syrup farmers can make is determined almost entirely by the environment. The quantity of sap each year is almost completely dependent on the weather in the spring. New research indicates that the quantity of seeds dropped from maple trees is a predictor of the sugar levels in the sap. 2013 was one of the best years on record for maple syrup, due to a long spring with days in the 40s and nights below freezing. As climate change brings unexpected weather patterns and a generally warming climate, sugaring is an increasingly volatile field.

The co-op is there to mediate the relationships that help maple syrup happen. Whether there’s a glut or a scarcity of syrup, the co-op works with farmers and customers to ensure a fair price that means the farmers can take care of their families and the customers can afford the product. The employees check in with farmers throughout the winter and fall, negotiating prices with the stores that sell the product. Aggregating the syrup from several farmers gains the benefits of consolidation, but the co-op model ensures that ownership and decision-making remain democratic.

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Maple Valley and Organic Certification

Maple Valley also faces an interesting set of challenges because of their choice to produce organic syrup. The criteria to be certified organic include:

  1. No chemical usage in our woods for weed trees, roads or paths through the forests
  2. No lead soldered equipment in production—on the farms or in the commercial kitchen facility.
  3. A managed buffer between the maple woodlands and neighboring farms
  4. Responsible tapping (not over-tapping so the tree has enough sap to grow vibrantly.
  5. Responsible forest management (tree thinning, care of root systems under paths and roads, diversity of tree species other than maple, protection of wildlife habitat and healthy insects)
  6. Organic standard cleaning products in the bottling facility that do not leave chemical residue
  7. Non-chemical pest control monitoring systems (required for all processing facilities)
  8. Certified Organic vegetable oil (what Maple Valley uses!) or butter as a defoamer in sugar shack evaporators.

That last one is a little confusing if you aren’t familiar with the process of sugaring. As maple syrup boils, it can boil over unless a “defoamer” is added. This usually is just a drop or two in a whole vat. Many non-organic farms use chemical defoamers, non-organic oils, butter or animal fat. While bacon fat or butter are traditional, Maple Valley is also vegan and kosher, which means that a vegetable oil is the best choice for them.

The Maple Valley Co-op in 2015

There’s an exciting future in front of Maple Valley as the co-op is expecting more growth in 2015. They are expanding their grocery syrup into new distributors as well as servicing more bulk syrup for delis, bakeries, coffee bars, and restaurants. In addition to their iced maple lattes, look forward this summer to fun grilling and shifting the sugar to maple. Maple Valley putting out new recipes for maple barbecue, baked maple beans, fresh maple lemonade, crispy cold slaw, salads and light maple desserts.

As the business grows, the underlying foundations of Maple Valley Co-op are democratic. The community that produces, works for, sells, and buys the maple syrup owns Maple Valley. As a community owned business, Maple Valley is a part of the P6 vision for a cooperative economy. We welcome them to our membership and look forward to working together for a better food system.

 

1 Comment

  1. Joël Boutin says:

    Nice document and video

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