Maple industry in New York state grows to 2nd in nation

Jack Drury of Mark Twain Maple Works in Saranac Lake smiles with one of his sap buckets. (Enterprise photo — Glynis Hart)

The frigid mid-winter months have ushered maple farmers back to the woods and sugarhouses for another season of syrup making. Towering trees deliver gallons of clear sap from taps to pipes and buckets as temperatures rise above and fall below freezing. Producers collect the sap in the long metal pans in their evaporators to boil into sweet, viscous gold. Hundreds of producers have kept this tradition alive for centuries.

New York’s formerly cottage maple industry has boomed in the past decade with new tools, techniques and products attracting more participants and encouraging longtime producers to bolster their operations. The state ranks second in the nation in maple production after Vermont. While hurdles both domestic and abroad can deter producers, several believe the industry will continue to flourish.

“I really think the maple industry in New York can grow to be one of the dominant specialty crops,” said Helen Thomas, executive director of the New York State Maple Association, which has about 700 members.

The number of taps collecting sap, syrup produced and the monetary value of the state’s production has practically doubled, if not more, in the past 10 years.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agriculture Statistics Service, which has been collected through voluntary surveys, the number of gallons of syrup produced annually rose from 320,000 gallons in 2008 to 806,000 gallons last year. The value of production has grown from $13.9 million in 2008 to $29.6 million in 2017, although that is down from $31.3 million in 2016.

The boom, Ms. Thomas said, has been fueled predominantly by small-scale, family operations like Moser’s Maple in Croghan. Jake Moser and his brothers consider their operation a part-time business, he said, but decades of love for the craft have fueled their ongoing growth. Mr. Moser, who also works in construction, said his production has grown from 300 gallons of syrup each year in 2008 with 1,300 tapped trees to about 1,000 gallons with 2,220 tapped trees. The Mosers have also been building a new sugarhouse to support future growth.

“We feel — me and my brothers — feel it’s our duty to keep doing it to supply this to our customers,” Mr. Moser said.

Experts including Michael L. Farrell, former director of the Uihlein Forest in Lake Placid, predicted about 10 years ago that the maple sector in Northern New York alone would grow into a $10 million industry. Mr. Farrell, now chief executive officer of his own company, the Forest Farmers LLC in Lyon Mountain, said the north country’s local industry has surpassed that goal, bringing in $12 million to $15 million each year.

Clinton County has become the largest maple producer in the state, he said, thanks to many veteran farmers expanding their operations and newcomers entering the industry. His sugarbush alone has about 100,000 taps.

“I expect the industry will probably continue to grow, but probably not at as fast of a pace as it had been,” Farrell said.

The local and statewide maple sectors have continued to expand despite a drop in the price for maple in recent years.

Mr. Farrell said the price for syrup a decade ago was close to $4 per pound, but a surplus of products in the market has lowered it to a little more than $2 per pound. Despite the decline, Mr. Farrell said most producers find a way to at least break even.

“A lot of people do sugaring because they want to do it, not because it’s a major source of income,” Mr. Farrell said.

Canada, particularly the province of Quebec, plays a key role in influencing the price of maple syrup because of the size of its industry and worldwide distribution.

The Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers oversees Quebec’s 11,300 producers, which yield 72 percent of the world’s maple supply, by establishing quotas and marketing bulk syrup from the province. It also manages a Global Strategic Maple Syrup Reserve, which stockpiles syrup to adjust the global supply when demand fluctuates, according to its website.

“Quebec has right around 100 million pounds of maple syrup in storage,” said Adam D. Wild, current director of the Uihlein Forest.

Mr. Farrell and Mr. Wild say the federation can practically set maple syrup prices because of its market domination, although Mr. Wild said its control through storage has also provided a degree of price stabilization. With the value of the U.S. dollar exceeding the Canadian dollar, bulk syrup consumers in the states may purchase more affordable Quebec syrup, which Mr. Farrell said he believes contributes to the decline in bulk prices. The growing international market, however, should still allow producers to turn a profit, Mr. Wild said.

While actions of Quebec maple farmers can have great weight in the market and bulk pricing, most New York producers, particularly in the north country, sell their products directly to retail. Mr. Wild said retail prices from farmstands, farmers markets and stores have not fluctuated much over the years, giving producers a stable market to earn a profit. Finding new retail opportunities for producers in remote areas, however, remains a challenge due to their distance from large metropolitan markets, Thomas said.

“The only thing I think is sometimes a challenge in northern New York is the distance from population bases,” said Michelle E. Ledoux, executive officer for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Lewis County, “but it’s something that we can overcome.”

Despite having a large-scale operation with about 12,000 tapped trees, Michael R. Kenny, who owns Sweeter Creations Sugar House, Waddington, said he sells 97 percent of his product through retail. He travels across the country to promote his wares.

The producer plans to bolster his production this year from 1,800 gallons of syrup to 6,000 gallons and expand even further over the next five years. He said dedicated customers he cultivated through the retail market will allow him to achieve those goals.

“I probably wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for the outstanding customers I have,” he said.

The market no longer limits maple farmers to bringing only syrup to the table. With ingenuity and promotion, they can sell consumers a multitude of goods made with pure syrup like cream, butter, sugar candy, cotton candy, coffee, bourbon syrup and more.

Moser, who sells maple cream and candy, said he plans to further capitalize on the growing popularity of value-added products with a new maple confections kitchen in his almost 3,000-square-foot sugarhouse under construction. Mr. Kenny plans to add more specialty products in the coming years, like maple chocolate.

Ledoux said she knows producers who now sell maple-coated sunflower seeds and coffee beans.

“(Value-added production) has offered up a whole variety of things,” she said. “These things go well beyond maple syrup in a tin can.”

Technological advancements that improve efficiency have ushered the escalation of New York’s syrup output in the past decade.

The implementation of vacuum tubing helps producers draw more sap from trees even in less favorable weather, and reverse osmosis, which uses heat and pressure to remove excess water in sap, has helped reduce boil time. Mr. Moser said his reverse osmosis system removes 60 percent of the water from his sap, decreasing his boil time by 50 percent.

Widrick Maple, Black River, has been equipped with a monitor system that tracks the efficiency of its vacuum tubing in two sections of woods and display the information on computers in the sugarhouse. The system allows owner Phil Widrick to identify problems such as damaged lines much faster and prevents him from having to assess them for hours on a daily basis, he said.

“It allows you to tap more trees with less labor,” he said.

Producers and experts have also attributed the statewide growth to ongoing research from institutions like Cornell University and the Northern New York Agricultural Development Program that help identify optimal techniques and market opportunities.

Elected officials like Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., have helped bolster maple research by securing annual funding allocations. Sen. Schumer announced Feb. 25 that he ensured $3 million for the Acer Access and Development Program would be included in the second spending package to avoid a federal government shutdown.

With the abundance of untapped trees, additional research, a broader market with new products, advancing technology and a growing passion, many experts and farmers alike believe more maple syrup, specialty products and revenue will come from the state’s maple industry.

“We’re still second behind Vermont, but we continue to grow,” Mr. Wild said. “We definitely have the ability to surpass” Vermont.