BALLSTON SPA, N.Y. — When maple specialist Stephen Childs travels throughout New York state, he can’t help being encouraged by how many new people are joining the industry.
The buy local movement, strong pricing and people seeking extra income during tough economic times are all responsible for the trend.
Childs, a Cornell Cooperative Extension associate, recently conducted an annual maple school in Ballston Spa for producers in Warren, Washington and Saratoga counties that included several people who are just getting started in the business.
“Over the past three years we’ve had at least 800 people come to beginner programs,” he said. “In some cases, they’re looking for a way to make money off small land holdings. The price has been better the past four years in the U.S. because they’ve had a shortage of syrup in Canada, caused by the weather. Most maple producers I’ve talked to, even with the economy, have increased sales.”
During his presentation, Childs stressed the importance of having both reverse osmosis equipment and a vacuum system to increase efficiency and productivity.
A reverse osmosis machine reduces sap’s water content, which can cut boiling time in half, saving time and money in the process. And a vacuum can increase flow two or three times more than a gravity-fed system, he said.
“That makes backyarding’ very attractive,” he said. “There are things that backyarders’ can do to make their time and effort a lot more profitable. My goal is to get smaller producers using that technology.”
Childs said he paid $138 for a 12-volt vacuum pump that runs on battery, which allows him to take it farther into the woods, away from electrical sources.
“I have about 40 taps in my own backyard,” he said. “I do that because I want to see what beginners are dealing with. A vacuum is very valuable. If there’s some way to get it into your woods, it definitely makes your time and effort more valuable. You have a lot better payback than relying on gravity.”
In 2011, he got 26 gallons per tap versus 10, a 151 percent increase “simply by adding a vacuum,” he said.
Childs puts on about 30 maple schools around the state each year, in addition to assisting with similar programs in Ohio and Pennsylvania. When not busy with that, he does research at Cornell’s Arnot Teaching & Research Forest near Ithaca.
Tom O’Brien of Galway, N.Y., attended the recent school with his son, Jacob. Last spring they got started with about three dozen taps.
“It’s a great family activity,” Tom said. “My daughter, Grace, helps too. We made about five or six gallons of syrup. We wound up giving about three-quarters of it away to relatives in Texas and New Jersey. Everybody loved it.”
The school gave him a variety of basic tips on a wide variety of subjects, from proper tap hole drilling techniques to developing an effective business plan.
Brian Huber, of Old Saratoga Maple in Schuylerville, N.Y., has about 280 taps that produced 80 gallons of syrup this year. He sells most product right from home.
Cornell has a free maple webinar program series that’s beneficial to all producers, especially beginners. It uses web conferencing technology to provide research-based information to maple producers. Broadcasts are at 7 p.m. on the first Thursday of each month. Each broadcast is scheduled to run an hour, although questions and answers may take additional time. For information go to: http://maple.dnr.cornell.edu/webinar.html.
In addition, Childs co-authored with Jeffrey Perry the booklet, “Beginning or Expanding Maple Syrup Operations as a Profitable Business.” Its primary purpose is to help maple operations develop a basic plan to secure funding for start-up, expansion and operating loans, in addition to a basic framework to begin considering the income and expenses that producers can expect as their operation grows.
The pamphlet provides a typical model, worksheets and tips on writing a mission statement. There is a $12 fee. For information call 1-800-547-3276.