In 2012, Ryan Annetts and Jake Fairbairn sold their entire crop of maple syrup before the sap at Tree Juice Maple Syrup even started running.
“We sold out so fast, we had to add extra taps,” Annetts recalled.
The sugarmakers attributed the sales success to their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program.
CSAs are common on diversified farms where farmers pre-sell produce and proteins. Fees are collected at the start of the season and weekly or biweekly boxes of fresh foods — called shares — are picked up during harvest. Sugarmakers adopted the model, taking orders for syrup before the sap started to flow.
Over the last six seasons, demand for maple syrup shares at Tree Juice Maple Syrup continued to grow, helping the Arkville, New York, farm expand from 250 taps to 5,000 taps (and counting). Collecting fees for the half gallon ($30) or one gallon ($50) shares at the beginning of the season allowed the farm to fund the additional infrastructure it needed to expand.
“So much of the cost of production happens at the start of the season, Annetts said. “It helps us out so much that our customers pay upfront.”
Joe Cicero of Circle C Maple Farm also credits the CSA model for allowing him to expand production. More than 70 percent of the 150 gallons of maple syrup he produces on his Pine Bush, New York, farm is sold through CSA shares.
Rather than operating his own CSA, Cicero partnered with two New York farms — Grand Street CSA and Southside CSA, both in Brooklyn — that offer Circle C Maple Farm’s maple syrup as an add-on to their diversified produce shares.
Customers can sign up for half pint, pint, quart, half gallon or gallon shares in amber, medium or dark — a quart of dark syrup is the most popular pick — and Cicero delivers the pre-orders to a designated pickup spot in May and October. During the events, Cicero offers additional syrup for sale and offers samples to entice customers to sign up for the maple CSA in future seasons.
“Instead of selling a quart here and a gallon there, we sell most of our syrup at one time,” Cicero said.
The model is more efficient than other sales channels, according to Annetts, who explains, “Once you buy maple syrup, you’re set for a month so going to the farmers’ market week after week doesn’t make sense for us.”
At Chelsea Morning Farm, multiple add-on products, including eggs, honey, beef, wild rice and maple syrup can be purchased with seasonal vegetable shares. Although 25 percent of CSA shareholders add maple syrup (marketed under the Never Summer Sugarbush label) to their orders, choosing a pint for $12 or a quart for $20, sugarmaker Cree Bradley says, “We love putting maple syrup in our CSA but we don’t rely on it as a main marketing tool.”
But Bradley, who taps 2,500 trees on the Two Harbors, Minnesota, farm with her husband, Jason, believes the CSA has a significant advantage over the farmers’ markets and retail accounts where Chelsea Morning Farm sells the rest of its syrup: It allows the sugarmakers to sell the story of the farm.
“You can only tell so much of your story through your label,” she said. “With a CSA, you develop a personal connection to your customers.”
“We think a CSA is the best way to build a client base because it’s so personal; our customers are invested in our success and, to thank them, we invite them into the sugarhouse to see the process and get to know us — and our syrup. They come back year after year and spread the word for us.”