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Tapping Potential in New York's Maple Industry

For many, the thought of maple syrup conjures sweet images of pancakes on a Saturday morning. But for thousands in New York, maple is not just a childhood breakfast treat but a growing industry and way of life. Michael Farrell, director of Cornell University’s Uihlein Sugar Maple Research & Extension Field Center, an outdoor laboratory station in Lake Placid, said records show around 1,500 maple producers in New York, but there are likely somewhere between 3,000 to 4,000. Most maple products are produced on small family-run farms, many of which have been passed from generation to generation. Only a few are large enough to have employees. “That’s certainly the nature of maple, of agriculture really, in New York,” said Syracuse-based Helen Thomas, executive director of the New York State Maple Producers Association (NYSMPA). For years, Thomas’ family owned a dairy farm and tapped maple trees on the side. But today, the cows are gone and maple is the family business. “I can’t imagine not having maple syrup in the kitchen,” she said. The roots of maple production go back centuries. While its discovery is lost in legend, Native Americans first tapped trees and passed the knowledge on to European settlers. Early spring is key for maple trees when temperatures fluctuate above and below freezing. The trees lie dormant all winter, but when temperatures rise above freezing in the daytime, positive pressure pushes sap out of the tree into a tap. As temperatures dip after dark, negative pressure, or suction, pulls water from the ground up through the tree, replenishing sap for the next warm spell. When temperatures consistently remain above freezing, the flow of sap stops. Sap was traditionally collected in buckets, but today ebbs through tubing systems directly into the sugar house, saving time and money, said Stephen Childs, a New York State maple specialist at Cornell University. Once in the sugar house, the sap is boiled to remove water and concentrated into syrup. Technology has evolved to cut down boiling time and energy costs, making getting involved in maple syrup production easier than ever. The number of maple taps in New York has increased dramatically in recent years and today is more than 2.2 million. This increase corresponds with a rise in demand from the growing natural and organic food craze. Maple is a natural sweetener and offers an alternative to other chemically-manufactured products. “As people realize high fructose corn syrup and artificial stuff isn’t good for you, they’re choosing pure maple,” Mr. Farrell said. The maple syrup industry also benefits from the rise of the local food movement and a growing concern with not just what is consumed but how and where it is produced, he said. The profile of the typical New York farmer is also changing, contributing to the increase in taps. Ms. Thomas said many retired city dwellers purchase land for the first time farther north and want to do something with it. She noted that many of these new landowners begin to tap maple trees and develop a passion for it. “You get bit by the bug and it becomes an obsession,” she said. There are also monetary incentives for producing maple because adding taps to trees allows the land to be classified as agricultural, according to New York State law. According to Mr. Farrell, this legal categorization can lead to a substantial property tax reduction. Maple has a huge economic impact on the state, but a realistic picture has not been captured, stated Mr. Farrell. New York State still holds a vast expanse of ‘untapped’ potential. Ms. Thomas said that fewer than 5 percent of maple trees in New York are currently tapped. Vermont, though much smaller than New York, produces significantly more maple syrup — 42 percent of total U.S. maple production, compared with New York’s 17 percent. The US also imports a huge supply from Canada, which produces 85 percent of the world’s syrup. There are certainly economic incentives to expanding the maple industry in New York. Tourism plays a role with events like Maple Weekend, where farms across the State open up to the public on select weekends in March, attracting thousands of visitors. Families converge on the properties to learn about how maple is produced and to satisfy a sweet tooth with an impressive array of products including maple candy, popcorn, ice cream and even maple soda. Broader awareness of the maple business is building throughout New York State. Seeing potential in the idle trees, New York Senator Charles Schumer advocated a bill formerly known as the Maple Tap Act (now the Acer Access and Development Program) to encourage private landowners to open up land for tapping, and also to support market promotion, research and education. Tied to the federal Farm Bill that passed in February 2014, the full results will bear out with time. But, increasing supply must go hand in hand with an increase in demand. “The resurgence is happening with maple production, but it’s only good if we continue to build the right market for the product,” Ms. Thomas noted. To learn more, or to find a maple producer near you, click here to visit the NY State Maple Producers Association’s website. Want New York maple syrup shipped directly to you? Check out delectable Grade A maple products from NYSOM Merchant Catskill Provisions.

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