If, like gravel-voiced songtress Bonnie Tyler, you're holding out for a hero, well, wait no more, friends. Our hero has arrived and his name is Maple Man. By day, Maple Man is the mild-mannered, bespectacled and moderately balding United States Representative Peter Welch.
But when trouble calls, and the Vermont maple industry is in danger, Welch heads to the sugar shack, takes a few slugs of Grade B and emerges as Maple Man, hero to man and tree. With his sap-bucket helmet, his maple-bark suit of armor and his cat-o'-nine tails fashioned from some old taps and leftover tubing, Maple Man is able to vanquish any foe. Multinational corporations, government bureaucracies and Republicans are no match for Maple Man.
Over the past year, Maple Man has been slogging it out in the trenches, working to preserve and enhance Vermont's roughly $38 million maple industry. And he's made fast friends with the nearly 2000 maple producers in the state. Let's recap Maple Man's crusading:
A year ago, Maple Man introduced legislation aimed at providing funds to support maple-syrup production in Vermont (and other states, but who cares about them?). The Maple Sugaring Access and Promotion Act authorized $20 million in U.S. Department of Agriculture grants to open up state land for tapping and to provide incentives for private landowners to get to their maple on. Sadly, a villainous anti-maple lobby was at work in the House and the bill expired when the new Congress arrived.
Not to be defeated, in September, Maple Man threatened the makers of Log Cabin "All Natural Syrup" with death by drowning in an evaporator of boiling sap if they did not remove the caramel color ingredient from their product. According to FDA guidelines, caramel color isn't all that natural, and Maple Man was not going to let that one slide. Pinnacle Foods, which manufactures the sugary imitation, agreed to comply with FDA regulations, mostly out of fear of the suffering Maple Man had in store for them if they didn't.
But Maple Man wasn't satisfied with Log Cabin merely tweaking some of its ingredients. In a press release written after the victory, Maple Man had this to say about the maple impostor:
By removing what is clearly an unnatural ingredient from its Log Cabin table syrup, Pinnacle Foods, Inc. has taken an important step to comply with FDA guidelines, but it does not go far enough. By continuing to market its product with jug-like packaging and 'all-natural' labeling, Pinnacle leaves consumers with the impression that Log Cabin table syrup and Vermont maple syrup are one and the same. As Vermonters know, they're not even close. It's time for Pinnacle to stop misleading customers and stop imitating the Vermont maple industry.
Oh, snap, Maple Man. You told them! Vermonters won't fall for that kind of packaging flimflam and labeling trickery, Log Cabin, so don't even try.
A few months later, Maple Man was at it again, demanding that national supermarket chains shelve Log Cabin's slop in an aisle far, far away from Vermont's liquid gold. In a nastygram to Wal-Mart, Kroger, Costco, Safeway, Supervalu, Hannaford and Price Chopper, Maple Man told the grocery retailers to "take a stand against consumer deception and misrepresentation of a product attempting to masquerade as real maple syrup." In a word, Maple Man wants syrup segregation, and he's not going to take no for an answer. So far, none of the chains has responded. If only they knew the sticky-sweet wrath they are inviting with their silence.
In March, Maple Man struck again, this time resurrecting the maple promotion bill he proposed last spring. This updated legislation, called Maple Tapping Access Program, seeks to "expand tapping access, promote the industry through marketing and provide funding for maple research." It has the support, on the Senate side, of Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat and lover of pancake breakfasts.
If all goes well, Vermont maple producers (the most prolific in the country with 890,000 gallons last year) should have some cash coming their way, all thanks to Maple Man. But what's his motivation? It's not like the Vermont maple lobby is threatening to politically kneecap Maple Man if he doesn't pull through. Nor are they enriching his coffers (and if they are, how can I get in on that?). The reason for his vigilance, explains Scott Coriell, Maple Man's communications director, is that "few things hit home for Vermonters like maple syrup." The very fabric of our community is drenched in maple syrup. Plus, while Congress debates whether or not to shut down over budget disputes, there's not really much else to do.
So, what's next for the sap evangelist? Replacing bottles of water in legislative hearings with pitchers of Vermont Fancy? Making Grade A Medium the official condiment of the U.S. House of Representatives cafeteria? Promoting investment in maple syrup as an alternative fuel? One can only hope.