There may be only one way to make maple syrup, but there are a lot of ways to sell it. You can set up a stand in front of your driveway, you can peddle it through souvenir shops. Or if you are in Vermont you can ask for help from Jerome Kelley in the state Department of Agriculture.
After two years of a development-and-marketing campaign for Vermont's agriculture products under Kelley's direction, the state has even found buyers in the Orient for its products. In the last two months, 19 1/2 tons of maple syrup granules, which are reconstituted into syrup with the simple addition of water, have been shipped to Japan and Hong Kong.
"That's 11 gallons to one Toyota," says Kelley. The Japanese are "putting it on cellophane noodles and dumplings."
Bloomingdale's has requested Vermont to put on a show of food products, and the fledgling food companies under Kelley's wing are also strutting their stuff in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Atlanta and Boston food shows this season (with the state footing the bill), reinforced by cooperative advertisements in national trade magazines.
Vermont maple syrup, its production having doubled during Kelley's regime as director of agricultural development, is being used in newly developed Vermont preserves, Vermont cider vinegars and Vermont applesauces produced in small quantities, usually without additives, for the upscale market.
If Kelley has his way, Vermont will turn into the Fancy Foods Capital of the World.
With nine generations of Vermont behind him, Kelley left the state about a quarter-century ago, to try everything from the British army to foreign correspondent to advertising writer, including a stint in Washington with McGraw-Hill. When he returned to Vermont in the '70s to write and teach writing, then two years ago to run the office of agricultural development for the state, he had seen enough of food media to believe that "the time was auspicious for the gourmet food business."
Kelley's department was given $100,000 for the first year to assist in the promotion of Vermont agriculture; in comparison, Kelley pointed out, a large food company uses about $14 million to push a product nationally. By now Vermont has 11 agriculture employes involved in marketing -- including professional tasters who evaluate product quality -- and 77 regulatory employes inspecting food products.
When Kelley began, he said, people outside Vermont viewed maple syrup as "a one-application condiment." That doesn't make for a torrent of syrup sales. So Kelley and his henchmen published "The Official Vermont Maple Cookbook" and began to encourage greater use of the syrup. "Anybody who can come up with a recipe that uses five cups of maple syrup in one recipe wins a prize," promises Kelley. So far the record is four cups.
And Kelley's promotion goes so far as sending people to eat at Kathryn's restaurant in nearby Danville for her maple pie, since her recipe uses a lot of the stuff ("We use about 15,000 pounds of maple syrup a year that way," jokes Kelley).
By now Kelley's office is piled with samples of more than 300 products that have been developed in the last two years, from 60 companies that were until then only a gleam in the eyes of housewives, school teachers, farmers and social workers. All of them use Vermont products in their manufacture -- Vermont butter, Vermont cream, Vermont apples, Vermont honey.
One company that built $12 million annual sales from ground zero in one year is using a ton of Vermont honey and 12,000 gallons of Vermont cream a month. And a state seal of quality is available for several categories of products to verify that they have been inspected and approved by the Department of Agriculture. "In effect, the Department of Agriculture is acting as marketing wing for 55 to 60 companies today," explains Kelley. And all of them are profitable, he claims ("We haven't lost one yet"), though the profits may be currently plowed into expansion. Even so, he admits, "I don't think anybody who wants to be an instant millionaire should get into this," since as his clients learn, the work tends to be 18 hours a day, and the first three years there is little or no cash to show for it.
The shape of Kelley's project began to form on the day a school teacher showed up at his office saying she wanted to go into the jam business. She made very good strawberry, blueberry and raspberry jam, she said. But Kelley had seen enough strawberry jam in his life to ask, "What can you do that Smucker's and Kraft aren't already doing?" He sent her home to use her imagination and return with jams that weren't already on the market.
After several returns and taste tests, she settled on berry-liqueur conserves such as blueberry bourbon, cranberry amaretto and brandied peach, and Vermont Harvest was on its way. Kelley's office helped design the labels and paid for their development, and assisted in the marketing. It also arranges low-cost loans.
Vermont Harvest's first market was the tourist shops, in an attempt to tap some of the seven to nine million visitors Vermont attracts annually. Now the company is selling 17,000 jars a year. And its success was contagious; soon friends and neighbors were developing their own businesses: Sunny Meadows, its pale gold vinegar-tart melon jelly, plus dessert sauces from chocolate espresso to white chocolate hazelnut, pa te's, mustards, salad dressings, pickles and chutneys.
* Stowe Hollow Kitchens, a fresh-and-chunky peach chutney.
* Maple Mountain Farm's apple raspberry and cranberry pineapple jellies.
* Clearview Farms, enough picallili and Vermont relish from old family recipes to warrant growing its own peppers from seeds bought in Holland.
* Cherry Hill, not only packaged fiddleheads and sauerkraut, but a fine line of apple products, the raspberry applesauce being what Kelley calls "The doyen of the apple trade right now."
* Annie's barbecue restaurant in Montpelier, its sauce in canning jars labeled with a design both homey and sophisticated.
* Jasmine and Bread, with its tomato-and-apple-based sauce called Beyond Catsup.
* Mother Myrick's Confectionary, with not only an extraordinarily buttery buttercrunch candy, but also two-tone chocolate boxes filled with chocolate truffles.
Among the companies proliferating around the state, some giants were born. Blanchard & Blanchard, a husband-and-wife team of ex-social workers, started business in 1983, but it shows Lee Blanchard's old-time harness shop on its brochures. Now the Blanchards sell six salad dressings, seven mustards, seven marinades/glazes to 850 food shops around the country, and buy cocoa on the commodities exchange for their four fudge sauces. In a single month Macy's sold $20,000 worth of Blanchard & Blanchard products. Its New England Chunky Ketchups, as the advertisements put it, plan to take "a chunk out of the nearly 300 million dollar ketchup market."
If any Vermont company is likely to develop a cult, it is sure to be Annie's Olde Vermont. Its 25 products not only include exceedingly good cranberry walnut relish and a tangy Vermont Fire Barbecue Sauce, but the labels themselves are worth collecting. The cranberry relish ingredients list includes maple syrup, Vermont deep well water, oranges, lemons, "and absolutely no will power." The barbecue sauce label warns, "Don't leave the spoon in too long."
And traditional products -- such as cheddar cheese -- were updated with new marketing techniques. Cabot Vermont Cheddar, for instance, is packaged for the fancy-food market in a three-pound block of "Private Stock," which is aged two years. Vermont is now producting boursin, provolone, feta and chevre as well.
Vermont turkeys are getting a special push. In past centuries Vermont turkeys were marched to Boston markets in tiny leather boots so they didn't hurt their feet. However, since Vermont had few federally inspected slaughterhouses, the birds could not in recent years be shipped interstate and the industry declined. The state was down to producing 6,000 birds. All that has changed, though, and last year production more than doubled.
Next year, Kelley predicts, Vermont will produce 40,000 to 50,000 turkeys. They will be primarily sold fresh rather than frozen, and they will sell at a premium. Kelley describes Vermont turkeys as unique because the quick change of seasons causes a layer of fat to develop on the breast so that it is naturally self basting and therefore moist. But how can a consumer identify a Vermont turkey on the plate? To solve that problem, the state is authorizing menu cards that verify the turkeys are from Vermont, and every turkey will have a special bag and tag number.
Each product in this development program has been a boon to other products. Vermont Harvest took the entire crop from two blueberry farmers. The state's large apple crop is now being absorbed by cranberry applesauce, apple butters and cider jelly (most sweetened with Vermont's maple syrup or honey). The dairy industry is developing carob mint and apple spice milks, primarily for schools. And a million pounds of milk a year is diverted into "value added" dairy products, including cheeses, yogurt, butter and ice creams such as Ben & Jerry's. As these companies grow, so do employment and taxes in the state.
This year the emphasis in Kelley's office is on getting a national distribution system going. Kelley is not interested in placing the products in supermarkets yet because he doesn't want to diminish their image. And he wants to find specialized distributors because, he says, when you go through a regular food distributor the product might get on the wrong shelf, then it doesn't sell, and the producer is encouraged to reduce the price.
One problem Kelley is trying to head off is competition within the system. Last year he was complaining that the state had no mustards; now it has 23 different mustards. "We don't need any more relishes," he adds. And "herbs -- we're going to have a little redundancy there if we're not careful." There are even herb teas being packaged in clamp-topped glass jars and wrapped with velvet ribbons. Kelley does marvel, though, that "we sell a lot of Vermont herbs in California, and we can't account for it."
As might have been expected, the maple people are overpopulating. Says Dick Rogers, Kelley's assistant, "there's some jealousy there -- price wars."
Once Kelley's office gets into the turkey or jam or maple business, it then works to get out of it, to make the companies independent. Thus it has encouraged the establishment of seven promotion boards -- apple, beef, egg, honey, lamb, maple and pork -- and formed the Vermont Food Manufacturers Association to buy glass and ingredients jointly and to trade information, for instance, on manufacturers' representatives and distributors.
But Kelley's group does keep at least a finger in; it keeps the minutes of the promotion boards, contributes seed money and finances trips to food shows. An important function of these groups, says Rogers, is to pressure members to keep their quality up. One fear is that as the companies expand, the quality of the products might diminish. "I've been waiting," says Rogers.
But the Vermont producers have learned that the fancy-food market is highly competitive and that, as Rogers puts it, people buy the label the first time, the taste the second time. As Kelley sums it up, "They know if they fail to keep up the quality, they've shot themselves in the foot."
Is Kelley afraid of competition from other states? Hardly. Others have called him to pick his brain, but he insists that Vermont's success can't be repeated elsewhere. Not only does the state have a national image of quality, with a population of merely 530,000 people, Vermont is too small to have a bureaucracy.
"If I go to a farm meeting I'll know half the people in the room," explains Kelley, "and the other half will have known my father or my kids." Thus problems can be handled in a flexible and personal way. For example, one small manufacturer printed its labels with the weight in the wrong place. But Kelley's office could personally appeal to the inspectors to leave the products on the shelves until they sold out so the company could afford new labels. The governor has been supportive of Kelley's effort, even to the extent of mentioning the program in campaign speeches.
As fudge sauces and jam develop steady markets and become independent, Kelley's team nurtures new products. Two soup companies are in the works, as are hams with no nitrites, grown without chemicals. There are plans for organic farms, organic meats and organic baby foods. Once Kelley found that shiitake mushrooms were Japan's largest food export and easy to grow on logs, he took note that Vermont has lots of logs and started to drum up a shiitake mushroom industry. The first harvest will be this spring.
Further, in the future will be elegant old-time summer sausages. Already Vermont has seven smokehouses curing old-fashioned cob-smoked hams brined in maple syrup. And Kelley understands the elegant stature of truly homey products.
When he takes his show on the road, the first thing he shows is a picnic basket -- packed not with the usual cocktail foods and wine, but with a wine bottle filled with Sterling Mountain Vermont Amber maple syrup and with a gold foil bag of Vermont maple crystals, and of course, a maple cookbook.
Here are some recipes from that cookbook: MAPLE SODA (1 serving)
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1-2 scoops vanilla ice cream
Pour syrup into a tall glass. Add ice cream and stir until semi-blended. Fill glass with soda water and serve at once with straw. BANANA EGGNOG (Makes 2 cups)
1 ripe banana, sliced into thin pieces
1 tablespoon sugar
1 cup cold milk
2 tablespoons maple syrup
Beat together banana, egg and sugar until well blended and smooth. Add milk and maple syrup and beat until combined. Pour into chilled glasses. MAPLEBROWN BREAD (Makes 3 small loaves)
1 cup cornmeal
1 3/4 cup unsifted whole-wheat flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup maple syrup
2 cups buttermilk
1 cup raisins
Combine cornmeal, whole-wheat flour, salt and baking soda. Add maple syrup to buttermilk and stir into cornmeal mixture. Add raisins. Mix thoroughly and pour into three 4-by-8-by-2-inch greased pans. Bake in a 325-degree oven for 55 minutes. VERMONT BAKED LIMA BEANS (4 servings)
8 ounces dried baby lima beans
1 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup maple syrup
1/4 cup butter
Soak lima beans in water overnight. Drain, cover with fresh water and add salt. Simmer beans until tender to a fork. Drain, saving liquid. Place beans in a 1 1/2-quart casserole. Combine 1/2 cup bean liquid, syrup and butter. Pour over beans. Cover casserole and bake in a 350-degree oven for 1 hour. Remove cover and continue baking for another 30 minutes. VERMONT PORK CHOPS (3 servings)
6 pork chops
2 1/2 tablespoons oil
1/4 cup chopped onion
1 tablespoon vinegar
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
1/8 teaspoon pepper
1/4 cup maple syrup
1/4 cup water
1 tablespoon worcestershire sauce
1 1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 tablespoons flour
Lightly brown pork chops in the oil. Place chops in flat baking dish. Combine other ingredients over low heat and pour over chops. Cover and bake 45 minutes in a 400-degree oven, basting occasionally. Uncover and bake 15 minutes longer.
Place chops on warming platter. Make a sauce by combining pan juices with the flour over low heat. Stir until slightly thickened, about 2 minutes. Serve sauce over chops. UPSIDE-DOWN GINGERBREAD (8 servings)
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons butter, melted
1/2 cup maple syrup
1/2 cup seedless raisins
2 medium apples, cored, pared and peeled
1/2 cup light molasses
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups sifted flour
1 teaspoon soda 3/4 teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup boiling water
Whipping cream for serving
Combine 2 tablespoons melted butter and syrup and pour into greased 6-by-10-by-1 1/2-inch cake pan. Scatter raisins over the mixture and then arrange the sliced apples.
Combine molasses and sugar and beat in the egg. Combine flour, baking soda, spices and salt and beat into molasses mixture.
Combine remaining melted butter and boiling water, add to the batter and beat well. Pour batter over apple slices and bake at 350 degrees 45 minutes. Turn out onto serving platter and serve warm with cream, whipped or plain. HOT APPLE CHUNKY (4 servings)
1 cup maple syrup
1/2 cup water
Bring syrup and water to a boil. Core and chop apples into the boiling syrup mixture. Cook covered only until apples are tender. Serve as an accompaniment to pork or turkey.