Peek into the Weird, Sticky World of Maple Syrup
Chapter 14 of The Sugar Season: "Aren't You Afraid, Mr. Bureau?"
During the spring 2012 sugaring season, Douglas Whynott shadowed Bascom Family Farms, the number one independent supplier of maple sugar. His book, The Sugar Season: A Year in the Life of Maple Syrup, and One Family’s Quest for the Sweetest Harvest, he follows the viscous sweetener from the aluminum sap bucket to the top of the pancake. Throughout, Whynott spins an intimate investigation into the little inspected but much beloved maple sugar industry.
In this excerpt from the award-winning book, Bruce Bascom tells Whynott about the economics of maple.
One of the first stories Bruce Bascom told me about buying was when he stopped by Mr. Bureau’s house for lunch one summer.
His name was Real Bureau, but Bruce always referred to him as Mr. Bureau. Mr. Bureau was a maple syrup trader, still is as of this writing actually. He had served as the mayor of St. Evariste, Quebec, and as a math teacher at the local parochial school, and was an accountant. Very good with figures. When Bruce told his story he often mentioned how Mr. Bureau got up early every morning to review his ledger books, written in immaculate penmanship. Mr. Bureau was the person who sold the maple syrup for a lot of producers in his area of Quebec, which is Beauce County in the southeast, their most productive maple syrup region.
When Bruce went to Quebec on a business trip he usually stopped by Mr. Bureau’s and would sometimes stay for lunch. On this day, the one Bruce told about in his story, while he was having lunch, “One farm family after another stopped by to get paid for their syrup, and Mr. Bureau wrote out one check after another for hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
“Tens of thousands of dollars?” I asked.
“Hundreds of thousands.”
Mr. Bureau was Bruce’s mentor in the game of buying and selling maple syrup. He had “cleaned my clock” many a time, Bruce said, but that was all part of the game and fair play in Bruce’s mind.
Bruce was in his late twenties when he met Mr. Bureau. He and his partner stopped at Bascom’s on a trip to New Hampshire and Vermont to promote sales of their syrup. They left St. Evariste at 3:00 a.m. in his Lincoln Continental and made stops at American Maple in Newport, Vermont, McClure’s Maple in Littleton, New Hampshire, the Springtree Company in Brattleboro, Vermont, and Bascom’s. They were selling bulk syrup on the Canadian dollar. Ken Bascom and Bruce bought a trailer load.
Mr. Bureau was the brain behind Jacques & Bureau. He started his accounting business in the late 1950s in St. Evariste by knocking on doors. Like many of his countrymen he had a passion for maple syrup and ran a small sugar bush. Mr. Bureau bought the first available R.O. in 1974 for $30,000. His neighbors came to look at it and marveled at what it could do. As they grew to know Mr. Bureau, some of the maple syrup producing families around St. Evariste asked if he could sell their syrup for them. He decided to do it. He organized the collection of syrup from his neighbors in the Beauce, and in 1975 he filled seven leased tractor trailers with barrels of syrup that set off for Vermont. Mr. Bureau was so afraid that something would happen to the syrup that he followed behind the trucks in his car. He sold all seven loads to the American Maple Company in Newport.
Mr. Bureau became what was known as a “barrel-roller” in the days before the Federation and their sales agreement. This meant he contracted with producers, advanced them money, or lent them money, sometimes paid interest on syrup that he held for months before he sold it, and, ultimately, paid the families what they were due when the syrup was finally delivered, after deducting his commission. This is what Bruce witnessed when he stopped by for lunch on that summer day.
Mr. Bureau and his methods fascinated Bruce. He had his business degree and enough acumen to believe he could do something similar himself. Older people in the maple business told Bruce he ought to consider getting into the bulk syrup trade. One was the president of American Maple, who gave Bruce a piece of advice that Bruce remembered. He should learn how to let syrup pass him by—other syrup would always be coming his way.
He also told him, “Syrup finds the money.”
In the early 1980s Bruce negotiated with a syrup-marketing company in Brattleboro—the Springtree Company it was called, named after the tree of spring. Springtree was successfully developing markets in the big discount supermarkets, selling B grade syrup, much of it Canadian. Bruce arranged to buy $100,000 worth of syrup from Mr. Bureau and made a deal to sell it to Springtree, adding a 10 cents per pound commission. He did this on borrowed money, of course. After the sale Bruce paid off his loan and increased his credit line. Six months later he made another deal with Springtree, this time buying $300,000 worth from Mr. Bureau, again delivering it to Springtree with his 10 cent commission on top. He turned his $30,000 over to his father, who used the money to improve the farm. Things were looking good, Bruce thought. He made another deal, this time for $500,000.
Six months later Bruce asked the bank for a million dollars, and made another deal with Mr. Bureau and the Springtree Company. This time the gross profit was a hundred thousand dollars. The net profit was quite a bit less, after taxes, and warehousing, after deductions for things such as leaking drums, and “things that go bang in the night.”
When Bruce visited Mr. Bureau and saw barrels of syrup stacked in his warehouse he thought that the syrup was his. But that was not true. Bruce’s syrup was actually sitting at farms in Quebec, and Mr. Bureau had not paid for it yet. Bruce later figured out that Mr. Bureau was borrowing a certain amount of money and multiplying it out on futures contracts—making deals for syrup he didn’t yet actually own, sometimes putting deposits down on it, sometimes paying interest on the syrup. He made promises on two fronts— to pay the farmers when the syrup was sold and to deliver syrup to buyers like Bruce Bascom. “He’d buy twenty-five, and then sell one hundred twenty-five,” Bruce said.
Bruce began to play a version of the futures game that he learned from Mr. Bureau. He borrowed a million dollars, but contracted for two million dollars worth of syrup, and then he delivered it successfully—for a $200,000 profit. He then thought, why not try for three million? He succeeded again. Bruce ran the numbers up even further until he was selling Springtree $5,000,000 worth of syrup on only a million dollar loan.
“I was overselling by a factor of several hundred percent to Springtree on syrup I didn’t own. I would get a contract, then drive to Quebec and get another contract with Mr. Bureau.”
During this time Bruce was also working on the farm, cutting wood and making hay and syrup for $185 a week.
“By the sixth or seventh year I got pretty greedy. I was multiplying it even further.” Then along came a poor crop year, and syrup became hard to find. “The price went up in the fall, and I still had to deliver syrup to Springtree.” Because of the shortage and the price increase, Bruce had to pay Mr. Bureau more for the syrup than he expected.
“In December of that year I had many, many truckloads of syrup going to Brattleboro on which I was losing twenty to forty thousand dollars per load, truckload after truckload.”
You play with fire, Bruce said, and sometimes you get burned. He figured he lost ten years’ worth of income. He took mortgages to pay for the syrup, using the farm as collateral— essentially he was gambling with the farm. Fortunately for Bruce, two good crop years followed, and he was able to pay off the mortgages fairly quickly. “But I lost my nerve for being out there on the edge.” Ken Bascom took the losses philosophically. He didn’t ask Bruce to tell him specifically how much money he lost. Instead he asked if the experience cost more than a college education. “Much more,” Bruce said. “He said to me, ‘Then you must have learned a lot more too.’”
Of trading syrup on the bulk market, Bruce said with some bravado, “You have to know what you’re doing. This is not for the faint of heart.”
In 2012 Mr. Bureau was still trading syrup, even at the age of eighty, even with a serious heart condition. I remember that when I first met Real Bureau, on a visit to Canada with Bruce, he trailed along behind us, over to his warehouse, where we watched inspectors from the Federation grade his syrup. After the walk across the street he stood catching his breath, and when I looked at him he shook his head and tapped at his heart. When I visited again a year later on my own to speak with him and his office manager, Carole Rouleau, who translated for us, we cut the interview short so Mr. Bureau could report to the service that monitored his condition. Yet he was still selling, and sometimes still cleaning Bruce’s clock. “He’s our brain,” Carole Rouleau said, and then told me, with an ironic smile, “We tell him to hang in there until we reach retirement age.”
Bruce had another story about Mr. Bureau, one that got at his methods and, I suppose, his heart.
The story took place in the early 1990s. There was a lot of syrup around. Mr. Bureau borrowed money from the banks and leveraged it out. He had barrels of syrup piled up at his warehouse, in the driveway at his house, and in his three car garage. He had barrels stacked around his swimming pool.
Mr. Bureau visited Bruce in August and tried to sell him syrup, but Bruce said he had too much already. Bureau tried again in October. Bruce told him he could buy it more cheaply elsewhere, that he didn’t need it.
“Around about November, December, the banks started to get really nervous. They thought Mr. Bureau was going to go bankrupt, and there was a lot of turmoil. The banks wanted his wife to sign over the homestead rights for security, but she refused to do it. They were married for thirty years, but they had a big blowout and she left. They never got divorced, but she went to Sherbrooke, and he’s been single ever since then because of that.”
In January Bruce began to run out of syrup. He drove to Quebec to talk to Mr. Bureau, and offered what he was paying other producers, knowing it was below what Mr. Bureau paid for his syrup, knowing he would be taking a loss. Mr. Bureau refused to sell.
“Then I needed several truckloads of syrup, so I called back. By now it was late January. Mr. Bureau had been carrying this syrup all year and paying interest on it. I told him I would take the syrup now, but he told me the price had gone up again because of costs. He’s hanging by his fingernails, his wife had left him, and he had the gall to up the price on me. It ticked me off, and I didn’t buy anything.”
In Acworth Ken Bascom made calls looking for syrup, and Bruce made calls, but they couldn’t find syrup in Quebec or anywhere else. “Two weeks later I called him again, and he upped the price again. I drove up there and we talked about it, and I tried to get him to come down. While I was standing there I could see them loading syrup to go out to competitors.”
Bureau had raised his price four times. “So what did I do? I bought six truckloads. One month before the season was to start, and he ended up selling millions of dollars of inventory that he had all year at a very substantial profit.”
As the man said, syrup finds the money.
A few years later Bruce talked to Mr. Bureau about what happened that season. “He said to me, ‘Speculating on any product like maple syrup, it’s mostly in a person’s mind. You’ve either got the ability to hold on, or you don’t. My wife didn’t know how to handle the risk and was afraid.’”
“I said to him: ‘Aren’t you afraid, Mr. Bureau?’ He told me, ‘If you’re going to stay in this business and buy syrup and speculate on contracts, you’ve got to know when you’re right and when you’re not right. You’ve got to know how to play the game,’” he said.
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