With New England maple syrup producers cooking up 2.19 million gallons of maple syrup in 2015 and selling a gallon of the sweet stuff at nearly $35 a gallon in 2014, on average, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service noted, there’s a lot of selling to do. Along with holding maple festivals on the weekend, can working with local community organizations increase maple syrup sales?

Gary Bilek, president of The Pennsylvania Maple Syrup Producers Council, explained how offering community events provides another opportunity for maple sugar houses to help educate and increase sales opportunities. These events can act in conjunction with more common events held on the weekend.

Volunteers assisting with tapping the trees at Flanders Nature Center & Land Trust

“What we see happening, especially on a regional level, is that those regions will usually schedule open houses. That frequently gets attention of other groups like Boy Scout groups or it might be a ladies garden club,” Bilek said. While open houses may not be the best time for these groups, it may prompt them to reach out to schedule an event.

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Preparing for a group visit

As Bilek noted, “The maple producer’s got to offer an event. They need to offer a reason for them to come. It needs to be the destination of their trip, not just a stop along the way.”

He discussed how sugar house operators can involve and educate their visitors, regardless of their age. Whether the tree is producing sap, Bilek explained how giving them a chance to drill and tap a tree gives visitors a more memorable experience.

“And it’s amazing how many parents will do that if they have the opportunity,” Bilek said. “You’re going to think, some grownups are not just going to drill a hole in this dead tree in order to simulate tapping a tree, and there’s a lot of them that will. They want that experience.”

One way to work with local community organizations to increase exposure is to bring the sugaring process to the organization. Amber McDonald, environmental educator and administrator of Woodbury, Connecticut.-based Flanders Nature Center & Land Trust, explained how the process works.

“We basically do the same program that they would see if they came here, minus actually going out to collect the sap and actually seeing the sugar house in action,” McDonald explained.

The program begins with the Native Americans’ initial maple syrup experience to the Colonial time frame to modern-day maple processing. Tools shown include birch, wooden and metal buckets, hand drills and a tomahawk. A display of different taps, “or spills” as McDonald said, used throughout history are also brought to be shown, along with the finished maple syrup.

Maple volunteers loading the buckets in preparation for tapping the trees at Flanders Nature Center & Land Trust

Kids vs. parents

Bilek shared an example of how answering tour questions for children and adults must be approached differently.

“Probably with every question that you get there’s two parts to the answer,” Bilek said. “There’s the case with the kids, and that is normally where I would always start because that would be the primary group. I would relate that answer, you know, where does the sugar come from, let’s say. It’s in the tree.”

The producer can continue the conversation with the younger visitors by asking them what’s not on the trees, what colors the leaves are and what role the leaves have in maple syrup production. While the kids are often the focus of tour, there are many ways to engage parents with interesting questions.

Bilek recommends asking more technical questions on the sugaring process. “Do you know what kind of sugar the tree makes?”

He further explained how to build on an answer to educate and distinguish maple syrup as a standout sweetener option. Bilek said, “Well, it makes sucrose, the same kind as cane sugar but it’s not bleached. It’s all natural, it has antioxidants and things like that in it. You’re adding a little more to the end of the story, but you’re addressing it specifically to the adults.”

A local high school group assists with the collection of maple sap in March 2015 at Flanders Nature Center & Land Trust in Woodbury, Connecticut.

Wrapping up a tour

Unlike an open house or weekend-type event open to the general public, running special events for individual groups naturally gives the sugar house operator an ability for further educational and marketing opportunities.

“If [a sugar house operator is] not on the open house weekend, you have the ability to go with the [tour group],” Bilek noted. “It also gives us a chance again to interact with them, just talk to them.”

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To make a lasting connection, Bilek said there’s a level of trust that needs to be established with the tour participants.

“That’s a tone of trust between the person that’s making the food product and the person that’s consuming it,” Bilek said. “They need to have that level of trust because that’s what this whole industry is built on.”

A volunteer inserting a tap into a maple tree at Flanders Nature Center & Land Trust

If an adult approaches a sugar maker at the end of a tour, Bilek advised sugar makers to support any claims they make to a group with educational resources. Beyond handing out brochures summarizing the sugar making process, he recommends having easily sharable nutritional information on maple syrup that can educate visitors and even answer questions that visitors may have.

The two most important snapshots of information for visitors, according to Bilek, come from the International Maple Syrup Institute. Whether a “rack card” that can be handed out to visitors, or a poster, these two common handouts can provide visitors with the health benefits (antioxidants, minerals, etc.) and a brief discussion on how maple syrup grades are graded. Bilek explained how visitors can understand that grade B no longer exists, but is now a part of Grade A evaluation tiers due to the recent grading changes in 2015 issued by the USDA.

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