A typical day at Silloway Maple, a 70-year-old maple sugaring business in Randolph Center, Vermont, looks a lot like it did 50 years ago. Neighbors, local school children and out-of-towners tour the facility and sample hot, fresh syrup. But in today’s world of “agritourism,” Silloway depends on these tours to turn a profit.
“There’s a new word – agritourism – that’s become very popular,” said Silloway’s owner Bette Lambert. “It’s how farmers increase exposure to consumers, show off their products and hopefully sell some and educate people on how [farmers] really do live. Sometimes there are misconceptions about animal care or care of the land, but if you take excellent care of the animals and the land, it makes the most profit.”
Recently for maple sugar farms, part of making more money has been opening the farm gate by hosting open houses and tours. For Lambert, the sugaring bug is for sharing.
Silloway Maple has a lot to share besides experience and product. For one, there’s a new solar-powered sugarhouse with a second floor platform that offers a spectacular view of the boiling process. Visitors bask in the clouds of steam, embracing the photo opportunity.
Last summer, Silloway also put on a tour with a group of dairy farms organized by the Chamber of Commerce. The farm’s lone sugar tour included a tapping demonstration – first with an old-fashioned brace and bit, and then with a battery drill – and a maple sugar covered nut-making demonstration. Family passed out homemade raised doughnuts and syrup.
A project designed and built by Lambert’s son Paul, the 30-foot by 60-foot sugar house took less than a year to complete and is powered by 70 solar panels. As the sugar house manager, Paul is referred to by Lambert as “the real energy behind the sugaring operation”.
“People always want to know if we boil with the sun,” says Lambert. “We do not, but it provides the energy for our reverse osmosis.”
In all, Silloway taps an ever-expanding 6,100 trees and makes 2,500 to 3,000 gallons of syrup a year. It sells some in bulk, some at farmer’s markets and some through mail orders on its website (http://sillowaymaple.com).
For the two-day association tour, the concern is always the same.
“We always hope we have sap to boil,” Lambert said, who otherwise offers products, demonstrations and even a film on the story of sugaring. “There’s nothing like being there when we’re boiling.”
Next up, Lambert noted she’s interested in accepting bus tours, anything to keep up an old adage her grandfather used to say, “A farmer has to sell something every day.”
Though the sugarhouse was always open for visitors, these days it’s about hoping to sell some syrup and other maple products, coupled with the “passion for sharing our passion – the pure, delicious products we make, our love for farming, the unpredictability of it, the weather challenges and family,” she said.
A Group Effort in Pennsylvania
In its 12th year, the Northwest Pennsylvania Maple Association Taste and Tour, held last March, involved 15 sugarhouses in three counties (Crawford, Erie and Warren) across the state.
The Sagertown-based association hosts several other events throughout the year including its annual meeting earlier this year where they covered industry-related topics covering vacuum tubing installation, evaporator systems, reverse osmosis and syrup hydrometers. Association president and event chairman Bill Phillips noted that the annual tour event is one of their biggest of the year offering visitors an education as well as a dispelling of some sugarmaking misconceptions.
“A lot of people have heard about maple syrup, but they still buy it at the grocery store and think it’s maple. They don’t realize that it’s called pancake syrup (at the grocery store),” he said. “A lot (of people) haven’t even seen a maple tree, and they don’t realize why maple syrup costs so much until they’re at the house and see all the work that goes into making a gallon.”
The taste and tour event featured many award winning producers like Laura Dengler and Bob Kent of “How Sweet It Is” in Sagertown. The 1,100-tap farm won 2013 Best of Show at the Crawford County Fair for its maple sundaes, milkshakes and hot dumplings.
Maple Lane Maple Farm, out of Union City, earned the Farm Show’s 2014 Best of Show designation. Owner Greg Walberg and his family have been producing award-winning syrup at their 1,000-plus tap farm since 1944. The open house tour also included Casbohm Maple Products which earned the 2014 Best of Show at the Crawford County Fair.
Other regional farms like Hurry Hill in Edinboro, earned a 2013 Premiere Exhibitor at the Pennsylvania Farm Show and offered several agritourism attractions like a wagon tour of its woods to learn how pure maple syrup is made. Hurry Hill Farms also included a museum featuring “Tree to Table” exhibits, sugaring antiques, maple production displays and children activities.
It’s good for public relations, as well as profits. Phillips, who also runs Fort LeBoeuf Maple Farm in Waterford, Pennsylvania, noted he sold nearly 100 percent of the maple items produced up to that point. By year’s end, Fort LeBoeuf’s open house results amounts to 30-40 percent of all sales.
Phillips said having this event is essential for the farms as it gives a boost to their bottom lines while educating the customers on maple production. As it turns out, learning can turn into a fun game. He stated that as the taste and tour evolved, the yearly open houses have morphed into a tourist sport known as “sugarhouse hopping.”
“We’re growing every year, reaching new people,” Phillps said. “When they visit the farms, they ‘sugarhouse hop’ to about 2 or 3 farms in the same day, then maybe 2-3 more the next day. Overall , it takes a few years to get through them all.”
That growth has translated into increasing sales for the farms, Phillips noted, as consumers learn that maple is much more than sauce on a pancake. It’s an investment in a natural, gourmet product.
“When we started this, people would come into a sugarhouse and buy a half-pint of syrup as if they were obligated to do so,” he said. “But as they come back year after year, they realized they enjoy the products and purchase a half-gallon the next time. As they go through the process, they understand it better and appreciate the work that goes into it.”
Cover Photo by LifesizeImages/istockphoto.com