Upgrades to the evaporator and reverse osmosis machine allow the Welches to draw off 20 gallons of syrup an hour from their rig.
Photos courtesy of Justamere Tree Farm.
Like many sugar makers, J.P. and Marian Welch first got hooked on maple when they helped some neighbors with their sugaring operation. That experience led to the purchase of a small evaporator so they could make maple syrup with their kids, and Justamere Tree Farm in Worthington, Mass., has grown from there.
In 2013, the Welches produced 1,710 gallons of syrup from 4,500 taps, and they're planning to increase to about 6,000 taps over the next few years. They tap trees on their 60-acre farm, as well as on neighboring land.
Efficiency is key at Justamere. J.P. Welch touts the benefits - in the form of increased yield - of using the new check-valve taps and from replacing drop lines, section by section, every three years. "There's no question that that makes a difference," he says. "The area where we replaced the drops runs more aggressively late in the season than the areas where we didn't."
"We maintain high vacuum and are very compulsive about finding and fixing micro leaks in the system," adds Welch, who employs two to three people part-time throughout the sugaring season to keep the operation running.
Active sugar bush management, including tapping practices geared toward reducing stress on trees, has helped increase production.
For years he watched the weather forecasts to determine the best time to tap, but now Welch heads for the woods in mid-January. With the check-valve taps he doesn't have to worry about tapping too early, he says, and getting started well before the sap starts running means he and his tapping crew are less rushed and can spend more time carefully placing each tap, checking each tree for signs of stress, and avoiding holes from previous years. Using longer drop lines helps facilitate that process as well, he notes. He's also adjusted his tapping practices to reduce the number of taps per tree, which he says has noticeably reduced the stress on the trees and resulted in better production per tap.
Six years ago, the Welches were awarded a farm viability grant from the state of Massachusetts. They used that to install their first reverse osmosis (RO) system and a high-efficiency, 3-by-12-foot wood-fired evaporator. After seeing the savings in cost, labor and time, Welch says, "I realized we should have done that 10 years earlier."
The high-efficiency evaporator at Justamere Tree Farm can produce 100 gallons of syrup on just one cord of firewood.
Since then they've added a steam hood and preheater and also upgraded the RO, adding a third membrane. This has boosted capacity to 1,200 gallons per hour, concentrating their sap to 14 percent sugar. At that concentration, Marian, who does most of the boiling, can make 20 gallons of syrup per hour, burning just one cord of wood for every 100 gallons of syrup drawn off.
Energy efficiency is important, because Welch cuts all the wood for the evaporator. That meant having more than 17 cords on hand for the record-setting production year of 2013.
The Welches' commitment to energy efficiency goes beyond the sugaring equipment itself to a solar array installed on the hill above the sugarhouse. The 4.7-kilowatt system generates enough electricity to power the RO and all the other electrical needs of the sugarhouse, as well as that of the neighboring barn. With a range of state incentives provided for such systems, Welch estimates that the solar panels will pay for themselves in just four years.
For all of the improvements he has made to his operation over the years, Welch knows he's not done learning. He takes advantage of online educational materials from researchers at the Proctor Maple Research Center in Vermont and Cornell University in New York, and attends conferences and workshops to keep up with the latest innovations in practices and available technology.
The Welches sell every drop of their syrup themselves at farmers' markets, fairs and through the farm's website (http://www.justameretreefarm.com). A small amount goes to wholesale accounts at specialty food stores. They don't sell any bulk syrup and rarely purchase other farms' syrup in bulk. "We try to only sell what we make and make everything we sell," says Welch.
They started selling their syrup at one farmers' market 28 years ago and quickly found that they enjoyed interacting with customers. Farmers' markets weren't the phenomenon then that they are today, he recalls, and there weren't many resources available to help vendors and market managers figure out how to have successful operations. It took some trial and error to figure out which markets were worth attending, and how to make their products stand out. Having an attractive stand is important, he says. "[But] what's most important is to have a consistently high-quality product."
Today they set up their wares at four farmers' markets a week, nine months a year, where they sell the bulk of their syrup. Welch says, "We have a rule: Never bring a chair to a farmers' market or fair." That means he and Marian are always on their feet, talking to customers about maple syrup. He adds that they make an effort to educate the public about the unique taste of maple products and the health benefits of pure maple syrup compared to other sweeteners.
As the public's taste has trended toward darker syrup, the Welches only bottle Grade A Dark and Grade B syrup for sale, saving the lighter-grade syrup for making candy and cream. They also make an organic multigrain pancake mix, gluten-free pancake mix, maple pecan granola, granulated maple sugar, and maple-coated walnuts and pecans. They get their custom-printed jugs from Sugarhill Containers. The jugs are topped with a distinctive green cap, representing the farm's "green" commitment to energy efficiency.
When asked how he sets his prices, Welch chuckles and admits, "I look around and make sure that our prices are a little higher than everyone else's." He doesn't want to have the cheapest syrup; quality is far more important.
In 2013, the Welches produced 1,710 gallons of syrup from 4,500 taps. They hope to increase the operation to 6,000 taps over the next few years.
The Welches went through the organic certification process and sold organic syrup for a few years, but dropped the certification after finding that it wasn't worthwhile for their business. They couldn't charge more for organic syrup than they could for syrup that wasn't labeled as such. "We had an established market already," he says. "For someone just starting out and trying to get established, organic certification might be one way to go." Their sugar making process still follows all of the organic standards, he notes, but doesn't have the additional burden and cost of the certification process.
While Welch isn't eager to see regulations and inspections imposed upon the maple industry, he feels that some oversight could benefit the industry over the long term. "I'd love to see every sugar maker be proactive and only use stainless steel equipment and keep their sugarhouses clean even in the off-season, because if a customer sees a dirty sugarhouse they're going to tell 10 people, and that's going to hurt everyone in the industry," he explains.
Welch has been active with the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association, serving for six years on the board of directors - three of them as president. He says the trade association is critical to the success of the industry. "We need to promote the industry more," he says. "Maple is the fastest-growing agricultural product in the nation; we need to get more people consuming it."
Welch isn't leaving anything to chance - he wants to make sure the next generation of consumers knows where maple syrup comes from and appreciates how good it tastes. Each year he visits the local elementary school and gives a presentation on sugaring. He helps the students tap trees and hang buckets in the schoolyard, and the children are responsible for checking the buckets and dumping them into barrels when they're full. When the school calls to tell him the barrels are full, he collects the sap and boils it into syrup, and each child gets a small bottle of pure Massachusetts maple syrup that they helped make.
Winton Pitcoff is a freelance writer and coordinator of the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association.