Jean Huber runs the evaporator every other day during peak season.
Photos courtesy of Brian Huber.
They call themselves "maple gypsies." When Mother Nature threatens a season not conducive to producing maple, they don't even tap the trees. Instead, they lend a helping hand to other producers and travel to maple events and attend educational workshops in pursuit of perfecting their skills.
Brian and Jean Huber own Old Saratoga Maple in Schuylerville, N.Y. This husband-and-wife team is dedicated to learning all they can about the industry so they can produce the highest-quality product possible.
On borrowed land
The most significant challenge for the Hubers is locating land with maple trees owned by an individual open to leasing or bartering the use of their trees. Anna Bierma, a neighbor and close friend, embraced the idea nearly 10 years ago when she was widowed. Bierma allows Brian and Jean to tap her trees in exchange for help mowing the property, plowing the driveway, assistance with maintaining the property and, of course, some maple syrup.
Each spring, the Hubers place 300 taps in Bierma's trees and use a drip line, usually with a vacuum pump to draw the sap out of the trees and into a holding tank. The sap is then moved to the sugarhouse on their property for boiling.
The duo typically produces 80 gallons of sap in a season. Spring 2013 was an exception. Concerned about Jean's recovery following back surgery in October 2012, they limited their taps and cut their production almost in half, making just 45 gallons of syrup.
The Hubers use a 550-gallon tank to collect sap from their drip lines before moving it to the sugarhouse for boiling.
Even though last spring was a lighter production year, they experimented with trees in a new location. "This was the first year we tapped trees on a cousin's property," Brian said. They placed a few taps with buckets in places that were visible to the public.
"Our cousin's family enjoyed emptying the buckets and seeing how much was produced every day," Brian said. "They started to really get into it and track which trees produced, which didn't, and how much was produced on a cloudy day versus a sunny day."
The Hubers hope the experience will encourage other landowners to consider leasing/renting their trees during sugaring season.
"We're looking for local property owners to lease from," Jean said. "It has been a bit challenging, so we are also considering buying a piece of property with enough maple trees to support our plans for increasing the number of taps, but it has to be the right piece."
Looking to the future
The Hubers have spent the last decade learning as much as they can about sugaring, with the hope of developing a retirement business. "Our vision is to be around 3,000 taps by the time we are ready to retire," Brian said.
Until then, they are committed to maintaining the health of the trees they use and are deliberately planning for expansion.
Each season, they purchase new 0.25-inch polycarbonate taps and replace the drip lines to keep bacteria out of the trees. They begin tapping in mid-February and place only one tap in a tree unless the tree's diameter is greater than 3 feet. "Our taps are so shallow that our tapholes are just about healed before the next year begins," Brian said.
Once the sap has been collected, they use an oil-powered, 2-by-6-foot evaporator. "We had a fire around the outside of our sugarhouse one year when we were using a wood-fired evaporator, so we decided we needed to switch to oil," he explained. The oil heat also reduces their start-up and shutdown times and provides a more consistent boil.
"We try to buy a piece of equipment every year so that when we make the leap of faith, it is not as much of a financial burden," Jean said. Their purchases included a used reverse osmosis machine, giving them the opportunity to learn how to properly operate the machine before investing in a brand-new model.
Future plans for expansion include a kitchen inside the sugarhouse. "We're doing it a little at a time," Jean emphasized. Slowly developing the maple business has been a good fit for their full-time careers. Jean, a nurse with 30 years of experience, has the flexibility to take every other day off during the peak boiling season. Brian works for a company that specializes in energy management, among other things, and spends his weekends in the sugarhouse.
"Over the past 10 years, we have built the equipment up to an appropriate level by buying the right piece of equipment and learning how to use it the right way," Jean explained.
The Hubers were introduced to maple sugaring by Jean's father, who lives nearby, and they have enjoyed the worldwide connections their maple syrup has provided.
While sales are limited to family, friends and word-of-mouth advertising, their maple syrup has been shipped all over the U.S. and internationally to Iraq, Antarctica and New Zealand. The Hubers' son, who is serving with the Marines in Iraq, has received a number of care packages from his parents, complete with maple syrup. Jean's brother, who is also serving in the military, often packed maple syrup for deployment.
Their syrup has even become popular in Alaska. "One doctor we know travels to Alaska frequently. He took our syrup once and now they won't have it from anyone else," Brian explained.
Until production increases, they continue to limit their advertising efforts. "If we ran out, we would have to buy from another producer and it wouldn't be ours," Jean said. "And we want to have enough for ourselves."
Once sap has been collected, the Hubers use an oil-powered, 2-by-6-foot evaporator.
Not only are Brian and Jean looking to a retirement filled with the promise of sugaring, but they also truly enjoy the time spent with friends who volunteer time to help. "We are thankful that we are able to do what we can do, and we have a lot of fun with the friends that help us each spring," Brian concluded.
Katie Navarra is a freelance contributor based in Clifton Park, N.Y., and writes about agriculture and the equine industry regularly.