KNOWLTON, QUEBEC — Who would have thought that there could be a classic economics lesson in something as simple as maple syrup?
The problem starts in Quebec, the OPEC of the maple syrup world, which produces at least 70 percent of the world's maple syrup. The sap is taken from trees in buckets and pipelines and boiled down. About 40 gallons of sap make a gallon of syrup.
There's a lake of unsold maple syrup, almost 3 million gallons of it, sitting in Quebec. And beside it are some red-faced bureaucrats who were unsuccessful at fixing the price.
In spite of years of horror stories of acid rain and creeping urbanization destroying maple trees, there has never been more maple syrup.
First the weather could not be better. This past weekend the nights here were below freezing, stopping the sap from running in the trees, but the days were warm and the sap ran free. "The syrup is gushing out," says Michael Herman, whose family runs Turkey Hill Bush Ltd. in Brome, just north of the Vermont border. "We've never seen a season like this, for quality and quantity."
Terrible news. Because there is already so much maple syrup hanging around that the price is low - as low as $24 (Canadian; US $20.30) a gallon. But another reason for the glut is that back in 1988, when a shortage had prices at $45 a gallon, maple trees started looking like oil wells.
"Everyone started tapping trees," Mr. Herman says.
A fledgling Maple Syrup Marketing Federation tried to fix the prices, buy all the syrup, and sell it. It didn't work. Last month the federation president resigned; the maple syrup marketing board is almost bankrupt; the small producers are back doing what they do best. Making maple syrup and selling it for what the market can bear.