New York's Maple Weekend started small in Wyoming County almost 20 years ago, but now the New York State Maple Producers Association is 500 members strong. The event brings the public out into the sugar bush and warm sugar shacks of maple producers across the state. This year maple people get a chance to tell their stories and show off their products March 22, 23, 29 and 30.
The Hotaling family at Smokey Hollow Maple Syrup in Jordan, N.Y., will welcome visitors during the two weekends and offer a pancake breakfast. The maple weekend has handy "region branding," grouping maple producers geographically, and Smokey Hollow is in the central New York region. Last year's tour in central New York featured larger-scale sugar makers, such as Schoolyard Sugarbush with 19,000 taps in Moravia, N.Y.; midsized operations such as Smokey Hollow with about 1,800 taps; and a small-scale maple business called Pied Piper Maple Products, located in Preble, N.Y., near Otisco Lake, that has approximately 1,000 taps.
Smokey Hollow Maple Syrup
James Hotaling, owner and founder of Smokey Hollow, is tickled to have a new pancake house for this year's maple tours. In March 2103, the Hotaling family made do with a heated tent for the breakfast. This year will be better. Hotaling says, "I built a small building. We call it the pancake house for education and pancake breakfasts to give people the bird's-eye view of syrup making."
The 20-by-30-foot structure is modest, using plastic and Velcro for a temporary heated shelter for special occasions, with flaps that can be removed when the weather is warmer.
Hotaling believes in maple promotion and looks forward to the big weekends in March. Weather permitting, the family will be making syrup and giving visitors a chance to taste that syrup over a hot stack of pancakes. The maple farm has welcomed tour groups of schoolchildren, scout troops and senior citizens through the years.
Now that Hotaling has retired from his work in conservation, he is more committed than ever to the future of maple in New York and serves on the Cayuga County Tourism Board. As if maple weekends weren't enough, Hotaling helped develop the local Finger Lakes Sweet Treat Trail, which includes beekeepers, jam makers, local ice cream makers and apple cideries. "We hope to generate attention and attract people. We can flourish if we get people to visit."
The maple industry is waking up to a world that values small businesses that are local and natural, according to Hotaling. He sees great opportunity ahead--the role of forests in upstate New York is untapped.
New technology in the industry also has Hotaling excited. "About four years ago, we modernized, and today we have an evaporator with enhanced steam-away. In that time, the industry has turned around; the equipment, the plastic tubing have improved dramatically." Hotaling gives credit to Cornell University Cooperative Extension for working closely with producers to introduce new technology.
Maple making, large and small
Maple Weekend is celebrated at sugar bushes of all sizes in New York. Cornell's Arnot Teaching and Research Forest shows off the research and outreach that Cornell Cooperative Extension is providing for maple producers. The research forest is south of Ithaca on Route 13 in Van Etten, N.Y., and offers pancake breakfasts.
Last year, Don and Dan Weed of Schoolyard Sugarbush welcomed Maple Weekend tourists to their large, modern maple product facilities in Moravia, N.Y., high above Skaneateles Lake. Dan Weed learned the trade at a large-scale maple farm in Michigan and provides the perfect complement to the products produced by his relatives down the road, who make New Hope Mills pancake mixes.
Barbara Hamlin at Pied Piper Maple Products shares her reverse osmosis and evaporator equipment with folks in the neighborhood who are just tapping a few trees, an informal cooperative of sorts.
The list of participating maple producers in the central New York region alone is a long one, and maple tourists in any region of the state could easily fill two weekends with visits if they have what Hotaling calls "the flavor for it."
Hotaling embraces change. At a recent maple workshop, he learned about a phone app that alerts you if the vacuum pressure is off in your plastic tubing, so you can monitor the system from afar. He also saw a taffy table that could be used for making maple candy and provide teaching moments year-round.
"These are things we can do to get people's attention," he said.
Besides upgrading equipment, the maple farm is diversifying by making candy and other maple products. If you visit Smokey Hollow Maple Syrup this March, you'll notice the maple popcorn, maple cotton candy and maple-covered nuts. "We got into confection products for retail prices on the retail side. It's more economical," Hotaling explained.
On Maple Weekend, you will find Hotaling smiling as he's surrounded by friends and family who pull together in late winter every year, converging on the sugar shack. "We all work together, family and friends, for syrup making, and we all go away with a smile," he said.
Go to the New York State Maple Producers Association website (www.nysmaple.com/mapleweekend
) to find the participating maple producers in your neighborhood.
The author is a freelance contributor based near Ithaca, N.Y., specializing in dairy and organics, but dabbling in all things agricultural. Comment or question? Visit www.farmingforumsite.com and join in the discussions.
Photos by Tina Wright.