Farming Magazine - January, 2013


An Urban Sugar Bush

By Katie Navarra

Erich, left, and Paul outside their backyard sugarhouse.
Photos by Katie Navarra.
Tucked out of sight, on a corner lot - the last on a dead-end street - off a side street in a rapidly developing suburban community in Malta, N.Y., Erich Ruger and his son, Paul, have built a cozy sugar shack in the backyard. This is where Sugar Oak Farms ( boils sap and produces approximately 10 gallons of syrup each year.

"My wife, Joan, made the mistake of borrowing the book 'Backyard Sugarin'' from the library, way back when everyone knew how to do this," Erich laughed. "It looked pretty easy, so I decided I could do it too."

In 2008, Erich and his son tapped their first maple tree. They placed 15 taps and produced less than 2 gallons of syrup. "We used a clunky old evaporator with a tarp stretched over the top," Erich said. Paul interjected, "Remember how the leaves caught fire around it?" To top it all off, in the last five minutes of boiling the syrup burned.

Relying on a "sap cow," the only sugar maple on the Rugers' immediate property, Erich and Paul collected sap and produced a small amount of syrup each of the first years. In the beginning, they also tapped a few red maples on the property, but have since used only sugar maples.

With only one sugar maple on their property, Erich and Paul developed a network of friends, neighbors, family members and business acquaintances to create an "urban sugar bush." Erich explained: "We have people that know we tap trees on other people's properties, so they will call and say, 'I have a tree in my yard, can you tap it?'" Erich said.

Inventory is clearly labeled and stored on shelving units in the basement.

Since 2008, the Rugers have added a few new taps at a time. In 2011, 36 taps were placed on multiple properties, and 9.75 gallons of syrup were produced. In 2012, they increased to 38 taps and produced 9.95 gallons. Expansion will steadily continue into 2013 and beyond. "We already have plans for 108 taps in 70 trees," Paul said.

Looking for other ways to expand the business, Paul used the Internet to view Saratoga County land parcel maps. "I found a piece of property in Ballston Spa that was mostly wooded, so I called the owner and asked him if he minded if we tapped a few trees," he said.

With the trees spread miles apart from one another, Sugar Oak Farms relies on an old-fashioned collection method. Five-gallon pails hang beneath each tap to catch the running sap. This year, after a trip to a supplier in New Hampshire, Erich and Paul have decided to use sap collection bags in place of pails. The plastic sap sacks are lightweight, but durable and easier to store in the off-season. Perhaps the biggest benefit is that the plastic sacks allow sunlight in, which destroys any bacteria in the sap.

Inside Sugar Oak Farms' cozy sugarhouse is a 2-by-3-foot evaporator.

"The plastic bags are designed to keep insects and debris out," Paul said. Erich and Paul have secured a piece of property in Hebron, N.Y., where a small tubing system will be used to gather and store the sap. The property is 48 miles away, so each week they'll make a trip to the property to collect the sap and bring it back for boiling.

Delegated responsibilities

The father-son enterprise relies on capitalizing on each other's strengths. Thirteen-year-old Paul is the "inside guy." He manages the business side of Sugar Oak Farms, including income tracking, inventory tracking, website updates and newsletter production. He also maintains a waiting list of individuals wanting to purchase syrup in the spring.

"Paul is the one who actually pushed to make this a business," Erich explained. "He researched which maple products were taxable and pointed out that if we established an official business, that the supplies purchased each year could be tax-deductible."

Paul created a Syrup Seller Inventory Report (SSIR) form. "Dad would leave home with a wad of cash and a few bottles of syrup and return having sold a few, but never really keeping track of how much he sold or for what price," Paul explained.

Paul, left, holds a "sap sack." They plan to use the sacks in place of buckets during the 2013 sugaring season. Erich holds a handcrafted wood sap bucket, circa 1932. He plans on showing it to visitors at the annual Maple Days in March.

When it came time to purchase a 125-gallon collection tank in 2012, Paul required an official meeting for discussion. "He insisted we had to have a meeting to talk about the purchase," Erich said.

While Paul excels at managing the business side of the operation, Erich is the "outside guy." He sells the syrup, meets with property owners who want their trees tapped and explains the payment schedule. "For every 10 taps we place on someone's property, we give them 8 ounces of syrup," Erich said.

A family affair

Sugar Oak Farms involves the entire family. "Grandma is out selling our syrup all year long, even before we have any produced," Paul said.

Itineraries for annual family vacations are designed to include stops at prominent maple-producing sites throughout New England. "This summer we only had three days for our vacation, but we had to plan the itinerary around getting to all these [maple] places in Vermont before they closed," Joan noted.

Each year the Rugers plan a trip to the Woodsmen's Field Days in Boonville, N.Y., because there are a lot of maple products there. During one trip a few years ago, they found a flyer promoting a Homesteading Fair. "It was only an hour or two ride, so we went," Erich said. "There they showed us how to make maple cream with a home mixer or a cordless drill, rather than having to buy a $1,500 specialty machine.

"I drive school bus during the day, and there are a lot of regulations associated with that," Erich said. " It is neat to be involved with something [the maple industry] that is cutting-edge, where things are always changing."

Katie Navarra is a freelance contributor based in Clifton Park, N.Y., and writes about agriculture and the equine industry regularly.