Maple Syrup Production for Beginners

Spring 1997

1996 Farmer to Farmer Conference

Gregory Moore of Heartfelt Farm in Cushing and Ellis Percy of Spruce Bush Farm, recently relocated to Jefferson, talked about their systems for producing and marketing maple syrup. Like most people who get involved in maple syrup, they started out with backyard production, boiling on the kitchen stove or in a small pan outside in the yard. Over the past 10 years they’ve both expanded, with Gregory now operating close to 1000 taps, and Ellis doing about 250 taps. Both emphasize retail marketing, and the potential to use maple syrup as a “draw” for your farm, especially with Maine Maple Sunday.

A successful maple syrup operation begins with the sugarbush. Both lean towards conservative tapping systems, based generally on the “Lamb” system. (See chart below.) Gregory taps many large trees in residential neighborhoods in Thomaston, with many documented to be over 100 years old. Ellis has four sections that he taps, in various locations. His goal is to rest one section for two years at a time in rotation. Most of his trees are in the woods, so, as he says, “I do a lot of walking.”

Both have developed collection systems that fit their terrain. Buckets have been essential, but both have started putting in pipeline in areas where a number of trees are close together. Generally, one 55-gallon bucket can handle 25 taps. A pump (generally gasoline-powered) is very important to move the sap from the gathering tanks to the truck to get it back to the farm.

Over time their boiling systems have become more sophisticated as well. Gregory started with 18 taps, boiling in an open pan next to the barn. He graduated to a used 2×4 evaporator, with capacity for 250 taps. Now he has a new 4×12 system, with capacity for 1200 taps. His maple syrup production has now grown to the point where it’s a draw for the farm, attracting people and generating business year round. He’s built a separate sugar shack and still uses wood for burning. He uses 10 to 12 cords per year, in 4 to 5-foot pieces. Often slabwood, spruce and popple are available at prices as low as $10 per cord. He likes a fast fire, for which softwood is fine. His system can process 140 gallons of sap an hour, so he still has time to see his family during sap season.

Ellis Percy has developed a different system, one that fits his other farm businesses as well. He’s moved to an oil-fired system and had custom pans made that fit his arch so that he can also do his processed foods (dilly beans and pickled garlic) using some of the same equipment.

If you’re thinking about getting started in maple syrup, be sure to look for equipment without lead solder (mostly the newer stainless equipment). Lead content in some samples of maple syrup has been above expected levels, and the industry has been working to eliminate the old solder wherever possible.

Both producers emphasize the importance of retail sales. Maine Maple Sunday, the promotion done late March each year, draws many people to their farms. Last year Gregory spent $200 to promote, and had 600 visitors and $2500 in sales. Ellis has done pancake breakfasts feeding several hundred, even though three other maple syrup producers are in his immediate area.

To build a base of retail customers, labeling and containers are important. Both farms use glass. Ellis, who sells at farmers’ markets, uses 8- and 12-ounce containers as well as pint and quart mason jars. Gregory offers a variety of sizes, emphasizing labels.

Both believe that the maple market has room to grow, as long as the emphasis is on producing a quality product. L. L. Bean may sell about 40,000 gallons of syrup a year, but there’s still room for many more people developing markets in their neighborhoods.

The best way to learn is to work with someone who’s already producing syrup to get a handle on the details. MOFGA maple producers Paul Volckhausen and Ellis Percy are planning to offer “introductions” targeted primarily to first-time producers. Check the MOFGA calendar in this issue (page 46) for details.

– Russ Libby

Lamb System Vermont Forests Canada, 1987 N. American Syrup Producers
12-18″, 1 tap 12-18″, 1 tap 10-14″, 1 tap 12-18″, 1 tap
18-24″, 2 taps 18″+, 2 taps 15-19″, 2 taps 18″+, 2 taps
23-30″, 3 taps 6″ horizontal between 20-24″, 3 taps 6″ horizontal
over 30″, 4 taps   holes, 24″ vertical 25″ +, 4 taps 24″ vertical
Taps 6-8″ all directions

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