April 2015 Agribusiness Feature Story: Maple

Liquid gold

Previous page, top, buckets collect sap on maple trees at Massey Ranch. Photo by Justin Sorensen, NNY Business.

Previous page, top, buckets collect sap on maple trees at Massey Ranch. Photo by Justin Sorensen, NNY Business.

Maple production a key to agribusiness growth in north country, state

By Lorna Oppedisano, NNY Business

The snow is melting. The temperature is rising. The sap is running. It’s maple season, and Northern New York’s sweetest industry is on the rise.

“To me, there’s a lot of tradition here in Lewis County and in the north country,” said Michele E. Ledoux, executive director of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Lewis County. “Seeing the steam from the sugar houses, and just knowing it’s sugaring season. It’s a really important part of the culture and history of this area.”

In 2014, more than two million taps produced 546,000 gallons of maple syrup in New York, the country’s second-largest maple producer after Vermont. In 2013, the same number of taps produced 574,000 gallons.

“We’ve had three record years in the last 15,” said Helen M. Thomas, executive director of the New York State Maple Producers Association. “We’re starting to get back to close to what we had in terms of production in the ’40s and ’50s.”

In the 1800s, maple was dairy farmers’ first crop of the year, making them enough money to purchase seeds for everything else, Ms. Thomas explained. Then white sugar became popular, and demand for maple decreased.

Now demand and production are growing, and at the helm of this change is the younger generation. Sugar bushes that haven’t been touched in years are now being tapped.

“The younger generation is coming in and saying, ‘We’d like to do this,’” Ms. Ledoux said.

This is the “second generation,” as Ms. Thomas calls it, grandchildren of past maple farmers looking to breathe life back into the industry, along with people fulfilling a dream of owning a piece of land in the country.

Arriving hand-in-hand with the newcomers is the rapid introduction of new technologies to the business.

“In the last few years, people adapted the same type of technology that’s used in other industries,” said Michael L. Farrell, director of the Uihlein Forest, Cornell University’s Supar Maple Research and Extension Field.

In the ’80s, plastic tubing was borrowed from other industries. Vacuum pumps were taken from dairy farms. The technology used to purify salt water led to reverse osmosis.

Along with advances spurred by other industries’ equipment, research done by universities, such as Cornell and the University of Vermont, has moved technology forward.

“The research has been exponential,” Ms. Thomas said, citing studies done to keep tapholes from drying up resulting in better spiles, the spouts inserted into the taphole.

Few people hang buckets to catch sap anymore either, she said.

“By and large, it’s much more efficient and cleaner and better for your food to run tubing from tree to tree and collect all the sap in the tubing,” she explained.

This increases the sap yield and keeps the holes cleaner, so they produce longer. When you add vacuum pressure to the tubing, the sap production also increases. Most operations tap each tree once, or maybe twice for larger trees, Ms. Thomas said. Reserve osmosis makes production more energy efficient. All in all, the new technology means less work for farmers, which results in more time for more production.

Even a smaller operation, like Moser’s Maple, Croghan, puts the new practices to use. Moser’s produces about 500 to 600 gallons of syrup a season, which is “quite small” for the industry, said Jake Moser, a fifth-generation member of the 111-year-old family business.

Mr. Moser remembers the old days of the 2,500-bucket operation, the gravity-fed tubing of the ’80s and the vacuum pumps of the late ’90s. Today the farm uses primarily high-volume vacuum pumps and reverse-osmosis machines.

“Just in my timeframe, we’ve covered the full spectrum,” Mr. Moser said.

This year’s maple season got off to a late start. With record-setting cold temperatures in February, conditions for sap to run weren’t ideal until mid-March.

The ideal daytime temperature is 42 to 45 degrees, with the air dropping to 25 degrees at night, Ms. Thomas explained. Other factors, like how deep into the ground the frost has set, also can affect the season, she said.

“When I was a kid, my dad always said, ‘You don’t tap until March 15.’ The last 10 years, we’ve tapped around Feb. 10,” Ms. Thomas said. “The seasons, in the course of my 60 years, have moved a month earlier.”

According to U.S. Department of Agriculture, last year’s season opened Jan. 10 and closed May 3. In the northern part of the state, the season lasted until the third week of April, and turned out to be a good year, Ms. Thomas said, adding that it only takes a few days of a “bumper crop” to be in good shape.

Mr. Moser said he doesn’t have too many predictions for this year, but he can say one thing: “Mother Nature’s going to give us what she’s going to give us,” he said. “If the weather breaks good, then we’re going to have a good season.”

A less technological advance in the industry is the use of marketing. Cornell Cooperative Extension is helping in those efforts, Ms. Ledoux said, offering branding and presentation advice to any producer who might need it.

“The whole gambit of ‘How do you look? How do you set up? From A to Z, how does that look?’” she said.

The local foods movement has helped, too, Ms. Ledoux said. When she first came to Lewis County, a lot of syrup was shipped out of state in barrels. Now, it’s being made into value-added products and sold at farmers markets.

“You can’t get any more pure and natural than maple syrup,” Ms. Ledoux said.

Maple comes in more forms than just syrup. It’s being produced as cream and candy, in beverages like beer and coffee, and used to flavor nuts, popcorn, seasoning and mustard.

“In the past, it was just ‘I’m making syrup,’” Ms. Ledoux said. “Now people are making dog treats that are maple.”

Moser’s Maple is among the innovators. Within the last year, Mr. Moser began producing Maple Minnies, the first mass-produced hard maple candies in the country. After coming up with the recipe, he teamed up with a man in New Jersey who had the right equipment, and now the candies are shipped nationwide.

“We’re thrilled,” Ms. Ledoux said. “It’s something right here in Lewis County that’s being developed.”

Purchasing maple syrup was recently simplified. Previously, the grading system varied between different states and countries. Now, a new universal standard that notes the color and taste is used.

In New York, this means that light amber syrup is now Golden Color, Delicate Taste; medium amber is Amber Color, Rich Taste; and dark amber is Dark Color, Robust Taste.

The system has only been in effect since Jan. 1 in New York, but Ms. Thomas said she’s already heard positive feedback from customers.

“Market research that was done showed that, in general, customers liked it much better,” she said. “There was, if anything, an increase in sales because people preferred understanding a little better what they were buying.”

While the industry should see maple production increase, the same cannot be said about the number of trees being used. Right now, roughly 2 percent of the state’s maple trees are tapped.

In the more agricultural counties, like Lewis County, the percentage is higher, but in some parts of the state, it’s simply not part of the culture, Mr. Farrell said.

“A large portion of the trees aren’t really in a forest,” he explained. “That doesn’t really make it conducive to setting up a sap collection system.”

However, the industry can expect technology to advance and become more automated in the future, Mr. Farrell said. Thanks to developments in the past few years, producers can now control reserve osmosis and monitor their vacuum systems remotely.

“As operations get bigger, they’re spreading out,” he said. “You can be at your sugar house, and be monitoring your sugar bush 20 miles away.”

Lorna Oppedisano is a staff writer and editorial assistant for NNY Magazines. Contact her at loppedisano@wdt.net or 661-2381.