Wisconsin lawmakers introduce bill to protect one of the four main food groups — maple syrup
Bottles of Wisconsin maple syrup sit on a table at Bauer Valley Maple in Richland County. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)
Wisconsin Sen. Kelda Roys (D-Madison) loves real maple syrup so much that she’s kept a bottle in her purse so she’s never out to breakfast and forced to put artificial syrup on her pancakes.
Last week, due to her love of maple syrup nearly as intense as Buddy, the main character in the movie Elf, Roys and Rep. Dave Considine (D-Baraboo), introduced legislation aimed at preventing restaurants from mislabeling artificial syrup as the real deal.
“One of my pet peeves is when I go to a restaurant and I ask ‘do you have real maple syrup?’ And they say yes,” Roys said. “And then I order based on that information, and then you can just see when they’re walking towards the table, that’s not real maple syrup, and I’m just like, ‘I should have ordered the omelet.’”
Under the bill, which Reps. Jodi Emerson (D-Eau Claire) and Shae Sortwell (R-Two Rivers) signed on to co-sponsor shortly after its introduction, “public eating places” won’t be allowed to identify a product as maple syrup on labels or menus unless it is actually maple syrup. The proposal’s co-sponsorship memo notes that Wisconsin already has similar provisions preventing restaurant-goers from being served margarine instead of butter or honey with added sweeteners. The bill doesn’t include any enforcement mechanisms or penalties for restaurants, but Considine said the goal is to set a “standard” for supporting the state’s nearly $14 million syrup industry.
“The whole idea is setting a standard so that consumers know that they have the right to do what Sen. Roys said she wanted to do: go to a restaurant and say, ‘Wait a minute, I want maple syrup. You said maple syrup. I want maple syrup,’” Considine said. “I think the industry will respond to that.”
Theresa Baroun, executive director of the Wisconsin Maple Syrup Producers Association (WMSPA), told the Wisconsin Examiner that if the bill passes, the benefit wouldn’t necessarily be increased sales, but helping consumers better understand the difference between pure maple syrup and the artificial version. She also says that people are increasingly interested in where their food comes from, so restaurants might benefit by offering and advertising Wisconsin-produced maple syrup.
To mark the release of the legislation, Roys and Considine traveled to Bauer Valley Maples in Richland County to tour the maple forest where the Bauer family has been sugaring for generations.
In the shack housing the Bauer family’s evaporator and bottling operation, half a dozen representatives from the WMSPA, clad in vests asking “Got Maple?” gathered as Dean Bauer — one of several brothers who own the farm — explained nearly every detail of how his family collects and boils down its sap, but not before he offered his visitors water, soda or Busch Light.
In the shack — where tables were adorned with a pot of maple coffee, maple coffee cake, pumpkin muffins with maple glaze, maple candy, maple popcorn, maple root beer, maple pickles, maple mustard, mini hotdogs covered in maple barbecue sauce and, of course, bottles upon bottles of pure maple syrup — the WMSPA members bragged that Wisconsin is the fourth highest producer of maple syrup in the country, but they think it could get bumped up to second or third if all the hobbyists across the state tapping trees in their backyards reported their production.
Considine, the ranking Democrat on the Assembly agriculture committee, said that growing Wisconsin’s agricultural industry requires diversification, and encouraging the growth of products such as syrup is one way to do that.
“Agriculture has gotten about as big as it can get and we need to diversify, we need to encourage small business and encourage people to start new operations,” he said. “I think of this as a way to do that. I know that there are some very big maple syrup operations but there’s also some smaller ones and a whole lot of people who make [syrup] as a hobby almost. I think we need a whole lot more of that. This is near and dear to my heart.”
Later, on a hay ride through the maple forest, Bauer explained how the family protects its sap from squirrels and raccoons (tapping trees while wearing rubber gloves keeps the squirrels at bay, since they are drawn to the salt left by people’s hands on the taps, while locking lids on buckets using the handle keeps raccoons from getting to the sugar inside or knocking the bucket over).
While the producers said they were delighted about the proposed legislation and think it will help their industry, they also said a major problem for Wisconsin’s syrup makers is a state law that doesn’t treat syrup as an agricultural product when it’s being transported. This quirk, according to Cumberland-area syrup producer Steven Anderson, occurred because Wisconsin mirrored a federal law that left syrup out.
The problem, the producers said, is that because it doesn’t qualify as an agricultural product, trucks carrying sap or syrup often aren’t allowed to travel down rural roads without being granted an exemption by local officials. Dairy trucks meanwhile are allowed to use those roads even though a tanker full of milk is heavier than a tanker full of syrup because of milk’s higher fat content.
“In a lot of your small towns, people are getting stopped because they’re not an ag product,” Baroun said.
In the 2019 legislative session, Sen. André Jacque (R-DePere) and Sortwell introduced a bill to allow syrup to be treated as an ag product, but it died before even receiving a hearing. Baroun said the state Towns Association blocked the bill.
On Friday, Considine said he thinks there could be some movement on that issue now that the state has sent millions of dollars to the towns to improve and rebuild rural highways.
“I have more hope than I had in the past for the roads,” he said. “Because we finally funded and gave a lot of money to our towns for roads. I mean, I really understood the town’s coming in and fighting with us saying ‘you can’t do this to us,’ I get that. But now that we’ve given them … for some of them it’s 500 times as much as they used to get. I think that’s an accurate figure. I think we have a better shot.”
As the hay ride through the forest was ending, Roys said she would be heading back to her office to celebrate the introduction of a bill she’s been dreaming of for over a decade with a glass of maple bourbon she’s been saving. Baroun complained that it was Canadian, not Wisconsin maple.
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