EDEN, Vt. - For years, Errol Tabacco was a maple sugar hobbyist. Each February, he'd tap about 100 trees on his property, haul buckets of sap to his garage and boil it into syrup for his family and friends.

This year's different: There's gold in these here hills.

Spurred by retail prices of $60 or more per gallon, maple sugar producers like Tabacco are going all out to harvest it, tapping more trees, investing in new sap lines and building new sugarhouses in hopes of cashing in.

Tabacco is racing to get up to 12,000 trees tapped by the time the sap starts running during the next few weeks.

"This year, we're going big-time," he said.

For backyard hobbyists and larger commercial producers alike, New England's "sugarin' season" could be a real moneymaker this year. The University of Vermont's Proctor Research Center estimates 300,000 taps will be added this year.

Global demand for the sticky-sweet syrup outstripped supply last year, in part because lingering winter cold and heavy snow combined to slow sap flow and hinder get-out-the-sap efforts in Quebec, Maine and parts of Vermont. That, combined with the exhaustion of Canadian reserves, has helped drive up prices, experts said.

In 2007, the average retail price of a gallon of maple syrup was $33.20, up $1.90 from the previous year, according to federal data. Now, it fetches $59.95 or more in Vermont, and more elsewhere.

And demand shows no sings of slowing.

"Maple syrup is the perfect product for our culinary times," said Barry Estabrook, a contributing editor for Gourmet magazine. "It's a natural product, so it appeals on that level. I also think it comes at a time when kitchen chefs are interested in exploring alternate sweeteners. It could be an alternate to refined white sugar and high-fructose corn syrup for reasons of flavor."

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