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I thought everyone would appreciate an article that provides an update on how the world of maple education is adapting to the pandemic. First, I suppose everyone realizes that normal is still a way off in the future, but that has not stopped us from delivering maple education. All the normal events, the Lake Erie Maple Expo, the Southern Syrup Research Symposium and the New York Mid-Winter Conference among others, have been cancelled. But in their place, a series of virtual maple programs have been delivered by specialists from across the maple producing regions. Let us step back to April and see where we have been and where we are going
In April 2020, everything came to a standstill as COVID-19 numbers increased in the United States. The pandemic had major impacts on the food production chain and food processing/distribution system. It was also a difficult time for Extension educators. Most of April and May were spent adjusting our work schedules to abide by rapidly changing health regulations. We were and are still working mostly from home. In-person meetings were all but cancelled, and teams of educators started brainstorming new ways to communicate with producers. It is very fortunate that we have access to virtual technologies in 2020 that were not available as little as just 5 years ago.
By June, plans were being formulated to find creative ways of delivering important information to our producers. As luck would have it, three universities from Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania (Ohio State, Penn State, and West Virginia’s Future Generations University) were awarded an ACER Access Grant in autumn 2019. The grant’s primary purpose was to conduct two surveys and collect information to help develop marketing opportunities across the region. Along with the surveys going out across the 3 states, outreach programs have been presented virtually with the next webinar launching at 7 PM on December 17th. COVID-19 slowed the survey timeline, but the first program series came out in June helping producers struggling to sell maple product during the pandemic. This was the first of what would become a series of monthly programs. In the months to follow, UVM Proctor Research Center and The Cornell Maple Program started producing virtual programs as well. In addition, we here at Ohio State University launched this new Ohio State Maple website that took much of my previous posts and expanded it to include contributions from additional authors as well as a host of education, extension, research, and other maple-related content.
For Ohio State University, decisions to drastically alter the long-established Extension model of outreach and education have not been easy decisions to make nor been made lightly. We hope our audiences understand and appreciate our commitment to new and virtual programming, but we also understand that virtual remote programming is far from perfect. We also understand that in the rural portions of our state internet connections are less than optimal providing barriers to accessibility. Many have found ways to adapt, and we are also recording and archiving programs so you can view them later at your convenience. We are also looking into ways we can deliver this current and relevant outreach to our Amish maple producers community
Where does this leave us going into the winter months, and when will in-person programming return? I cannot speak for other institutions because health rules vary from state-to-state, but this is what I see happening at OSU. Right now, we are operating under Ohio’s health mandate. Group size maximums are still set at 10 people (including instructors), though with increasing case levels, all in-person meetings are now on hold except for critical circumstances. Everyone including the instructor must wear a mask, and it is preferred that meetings be held outside. All meetings must strictly follow CDC guidelines. Because of the current and strict regulations at the state and university level, we have decided to continue with the path of virtual leaning. It is not unforeseeable to see the trend continuing far into 2021. A committee is currently planning the 2021 Ohio Maple Days, and it will be presented in a virtual format. Plans are to present the program virtually so that everyone can stay safe at home and view the program. The Ohio Maple Producers Association is making provisions to make the program available to those who do not have internet, details forthcoming. Pre-registration for the 2021 Ohio Maple Days will be required.
As we approach winter, uncertainty still looms on the horizon. I encourage you all to be patient, and if and as often as you can, to take advantage of the virtual programs being offered. We will continue to keep you posted on upcoming programs and events on the Ohio State Maple site. Just like you, I deeply miss the opportunity to attend events like the Lake Erie Maple Expo and fellowship in-person with everyone at the Ohio Maple Days event. Not being able to walk into a room filled with polished stainless and not being able to visit with my fellow producers is more than disappointing. Eventually, we will move beyond COVID-19, and the events we look forward too will return. And when they do, they will be bigger and better than ever. For now, be safe and stay healthy!
Thanks to Fred Ahrens (Richards Maple Products), Ohio’s representative to the International Maple Syrup Institute, for forwarding a memo from IMSI regarding Sales and Marketing Strategies. The following are highlights from that document.
As everyone is keenly aware, COVID-19’s disruption of “life as we knew it” spared nothing – including your maple businesses. Sales and marketing of maple syrup and value-added maple products were deeply impacted; however, eCommerce has emerged as a viable path forward for those brave enough to wade into the deep waters of online business, sales, and marketing.
The memo sent out by IMSI focused on sales and marketing best practices for direct to consumer, retail, and bulk/wholesale producers and distributors. As COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc with the old normal, I’ll do my best to highlight a few points that can aid in how each of you continue to refine and recast your business strategy.
1) Make sure your prices are optimized. What producers usually think of is making sure price points are balanced between the forces of supply and demand. While this is important, there is more to ensuring your pricing structure is optimized. Chances are that COVID-19 has you shipping more product than in previous years. Shipping has costs: someone’s time to package, the label, the box, the tape, the bubble wrap or other packing materials. Spec out every last cent and make sure you are a) being efficient in terms of your time dedicated to shipping, b) purchasing materials at appropriate bulk rates to minimize costs but not overload your capacity to store supplies, and c) adjusting product prices or shipping rates at competitive levels which cover your costs and keep you operation profitable.
2) Consider a roadside “honor system” farm stand! Target people in your local area and make it convenient and safe for people to buy your product. Through social media, networks of friends and family, bulletin boards at your churches, restaurants, and hardware stores, and more – advertise your location, highlight your product through well-crafted and simple visuals, and drive customers to your doorstep. If you have an online sales presence, add an additional option for order pick-up at your roadside stand.
3) Reinforce your operation’s personal story. 2020 has amplified people’s attraction to local economy and supporting neighbors and communities. Now more than ever before, sharing your operation’s personal story and connecting with individuals will pay dividends. Make sure your customer base knows how to reach you to ask questions, send personalized comments after orders, and thank patrons for supporting local business and eating local. These points resonate today more than ever before – leverage them!
4) Get creative and partner. Everyone is in the COVID-19 struggle together. Others are being forced to think creatively about business solutions. Those who succeed will hopefully emerge from the pandemic stronger for it, those who don’t may not. TEAM UP! Here are just a few ideas. One, partner with a local blogger or print news outlet to do a promotional review and sales advertisement! Make it a win-win and share the spotlight. Two, share profit margins with local food and non-food stores who are willing to put your product in front of potential customers. Three, collaborate with other members of the local food service industry to feature your maple syrup in their products – glaze the local bakery’s doughnuts, drizzle over a food truck’s ice cream sundae, or flavor a drink at the local coffee shop. Make sure your ingredient and its story is not lost in the collaboration. Leave customers with clear and simple instructions for how they can purchase and enjoy your product.
Sales and marketing is a big category and creativity is limited only to one’s imagination and willingness to explore new options. Know when to dip your toe in the water and when to jump in and fully commit. Talk with others who have successfully adapted to 2020 and benefit from their experience. The COVID-19 reality is full of challenges, but challenges re-framed are just another name for opportunities.
To read a previous post for additional background to the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, please read Les’ article from August. Additionally, you can view a presentation from the Out of the Woods: Enriching Your Maple Business webinar series on CFAP. Keep reading for updates on CFAP’s second round of assistance.
Ohio maple producers are now eligible for the second round of the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP). Signup started on September 28 and will run until December 11, 2020, through your local USDA Farm Service Agency Office. This round of CFAP is slightly different from the first cycle. Unlike the first round where you were paid on the volume of sap produced in 2020, you will now be paid based on the revenue generated from your 2019 maple crop. This is an important difference! Be prepared to share records of your gross sales from your 2019 crop. USDA will convert that number to sap valuation, and you will receive a payment on a percentage of the 2019 crop.
The diagram below shows that lower level sales operations (under $49,999) will receive a slightly higher percentage compensation (10.6%) than higher sales producers (9.9%; $50,000-$100,000). Producers grossing more than that will see incrementally lower percentage rates of compensation, though differences are small.
We know that the 2020 season has not been easy for many maple producers. Reports from those that lean heavily on Internet sales have been positive, while those relying on local retail sales have suffered. With an uncertain holiday season ahead, maple syrup producers should consider taking advantage of all financial support that is available.
You have until December 11, 2020, to sign up. If you have questions, call your local USDA Farm Service Agency Office.
As of August 12, 2020, maple syrup producers who have been impacted by the pandemic will now be eligible to apply for financial assistance from the USDA under the CFAP program (Coronavirus Food Assistance Program). Here is a little background information on how we arrived at where we are at today. COVID-19 has changed the American and global consumers’ buying habits. The pandemic has also impacted the work force required to process our food, and workers need to get food products on the table.
CFAP stands for Coronavirus Food Assistance Program. It was one of the first programs to be initiated by the United States Government to help the American farmer. Once the pandemic arrived, lawmakers were almost instantly aware that domestic agriculture was on a slippery slope. They recognized that farmers, who had already been under a severe financial strain for the last several years, were going to get hit doubly hard with the arrival of COVID-19. The first commodities to be included were livestock, dairy and grain. Livestock and dairy were in immediate need of assistance due to a radical shift in the food chain, and supplies of dairy products and meat were backing up in the system. Grain farmers have been subjected to declining markets since 2015. The pandemic along with other world events, such as African Swine Fever and trade tariffs have brought commodity prices to near record lows. Similar patterns occurred with many fruit and vegetable crops due to shifting market demand, inability to harvest, and untimely delivery constraints. Unfortunately, maple was excluded from the long list of specialty crops up until just a few days ago.
Maple has never been as susceptible as other crops to severe financial setbacks and wild cyclical price swings. Maple producers do an excellent job of marketing and for the most part there has not been a severe downtrend in maple syrup prices. The biggest factor impacting maple producers was that the timing of the pandemic hit U.S. soil at the exact same time that a new year’s crop was coming off the evaporators. Maple is somewhat unique in that it has a long shelf life and is produced in a relatively small region. No one knew in late March what impact the coronavirus would have on maple prices. It took 4 months of declining bulk and retail prices for the USDA to realize that maple was suffering a setback due to COVID-19. Certainly, no one was initially aware that COVID-19 would close festivals, fairs, and farmer’s markets across the country, but that was a huge blow to many sugar makers as well. Shuttered small businesses may have dealt the largest blow to the maple industry due to the sheer volume and distribution of specialty stores that handle local maple products. The second round of eligible CFAP payees again neglected maple producers, and legislators from major maple-producing states started to grow more vocal over the oversight.
Finally just last week, maple sap was included in the CFAP commodity list. The term maple sap may seem a little odd but that is what USDA has always referred to maple syrup with this product label. Maple is not a new commodity to USDA, and it has always been in their list of specialty crops. Other crops in that category include grapes, hay, and more. Specialty crops can initiate a Non-insured Crop Disaster Assistance Program (NAP) payment when there is a natural disaster and a crop is severely impacted.
Now that maple has finally been added to the list of eligible crops for CFAP, producers must act fast to receive a payment. FSA (Farm Service Agency) offices will start taking applications on Aug 17, 2020. The deadline was originally August 28 but it has been extended until September 11, 2020. CFAP is open to all maple producers in all producing states, and any maple producer is eligible even if you have not requested the services of FSA before. If you have never worked with FSA, it is suggested that you make an appointment with your local FSA office to help fill out the application. There are several additional forms you will need to sign. Applications are also available online. Unless maple producers also raise other program crops, they will probably want to arrange a visit with their local FSA office for assistance.
Finally, USDA will also offer a webinar with recent CFAP updates for specialty crop producers on August 19 at 3 PM.