Palmer Lane Maple is sugar maker’s labor of love.
By Vermont standards, Palmer Lane Maple is a modest-sized operation, with “only” 1,100 taps. But the farm’s candy, cream, ice cream and other products have attracted a following well outside the state.
Paul Palmer grew up in Essex Junction, Vermont, just outside of Burlington. He lived two doors down from sugar makers Nora and Fred Allen. When he was old enough to cross the road by himself, Palmer started spending springs in their sugarhouse, learning how to make syrup, collecting buckets, and getting hooked on maple sugaring.
“I hung out with them for 14 years,” he said, “and I learned the real traditional ways of making syrup.”
In 1990, he bought 50 buckets of his own, and a week later doubled that number to 100. He boiled the sap in a 2-by-6-foot wood-fired evaporator. He doubled his operation again the following year, still boiling the sap from 200 buckets in his open-air evaporator, with some plastic sheets wrapped around nearby trees to break the wind. Later years saw the construction of a sugarhouse, the transition to tubing, and an upgrade to his current 40-inch-by-12-foot wood-fired evaporator.
Along the way, Palmer has continued to learn, even taking a year off from sugaring at his own operation so he could visit other sugarhouses and learn from more experienced producers. He read “The North American Maple Syrup Producers Manual,” attended the maple schools offered in Vermont, and read all of the Proctor Maple Research Center’s publications.
Palmer was always particularly interested in maple candy and wanted to find a way to leave his corporate desk job and “do maple full time.” In 2008, he bought a candy business from retiring sugar makers in New Hampshire, acquiring their customer lists and equipment. That business has grown by double-digits each year since then, keeping Palmer and his wife employed full time, along with four part-time employees who pack candy. They sell about 15,000 pounds of candy each year, he said, primarily to wholesale accounts in the Northeast, as well as other regions of the country that make up nearly 60 percent of Palmer Lane Maple’s annual sales. To keep up with growing demand, he purchases up to 50 barrels of syrup each year from local sugar makers.
Two years ago, Palmer opened a retail store on a busy road in Jericho, Vermont, near his home and sugarhouse in Jeffersonville. Along with syrup, candy and cream, the store sells treats like maple caramel walnuts, maple seasonings and pancake mixes. “We sell products made by other Vermonters,” he said, “as long as it’s flavored with pure maple syrup.”
The goal was to sell nothing but pure maple products, but due to popular demand, he began to offer soft-serve maple creemees.
He worked with a local dairy cooperative to create a base mix that is rich—10 percent butterfat—and sweetened lightly enough so that he could flavor it with his best dark syrup. He crumbles the seconds from the candy making operation to make maple “sprinkles,” which have been a big hit with customers.
“To me, it’s not worth making an inferior product,” Palmer said. “If you’re going to do it, go all the way.”
The cones are reasonably priced — $2 for small and $3 for a regular — and business has been strong just relying on word-of mouth.
“I did a little bit of advertising, but if you make a good product, word gets out,” Palmer said.
The creemees bring customers in the door, and that taste of maple often convinces them to take home some candy and syrup as well, Palmer said.
Committed to the traditional ways of making syrup, Palmer resisted getting a reverse osmosis (RO) machine for many years. But long days and nights working solo in his sugarhouse finally convinced him to make the investment. He recalled turning it on and walking away for 15 minutes and coming back to find 200 gallons of water removed from the concentrate. “I realized right away that there’s no question it’s worth it.” Still, he only concentrates his sap to 8-10 percent sugar, and doesn’t push sap through the pan but rather lets it caramelize longer, since he has more demand for darker syrup from customers. His methods clearly work; his syrup has won several awards such as “Best in Class-Dark Amber” at the 2014 Vermont Farm Show and 2013 Champlian Valley Fair.
However, the addition of the RO led to some unintended consequence: he was making syrup faster than he could keep up with. “I have a pretty steady routine,” Palmer said. “I fire the evaporator every six minutes, and I couldn’t do everything.” So he purchased a used auto draw-off and repaired it, then reconfigured how his barrels move through the filtering process so he could keep up.
Palmer’s wife, Colleen, the primary candy maker, was also resistant to new technology, he recalled. However, the steady demand required making several batches of candy every day. So they purchased a gear pump machine for their candy and cream, and Colleen was on board.
Just as he remembered the Allens patiently teaching him their methods, Palmer has taught many other sugar makers how to make candy and cream. “We have lots of conversations with sugar makers in and out of state, and we offer any hints we can. It’s just what you do, because you were once in the same position,” he said. “I love talking about it. Anybody that wants to learn, I’m more than happy to teach.”
During the annual maple open house weekend, Palmer sets up a tapping area for visitors to drill holes and set spouts and droplines.
“I get kids as young as 8 years old doing it, as well as adults. The kids say it’s great, and the parents always say they’re surprised how hard it is. It gives them some perspective, and an understanding of what it takes to make the syrup, when I tell them that I do that 1,100 times for a relatively small operation.” His goal is to have more educational materials in the store and to eventually have the sugar making, candy making and retail operations all under the same roof.
Even though the candy is the most profitable part of his business, Palmer said he wants to expand the sugaring operation. “I love making syrup. It’s part of my childhood that I won’t let go of.” He also enjoys talking to customers and educating them about syrup. Palmer noted that the recent revisions to the grading system for syrup gives him an opportunity to talk to customers about what makes the grades different. “Who cares what we call the grades? You should sample it and buy what you like,” he said.
Palmer also contributes to the industry through trade associations. Eight years ago, he started out as a board member for his county association, then was elected to the board of the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association. Currently he’s the Vermont delegate to the North American Maple Syrup Council. “I’ve learned a ton,” he said of his time volunteering for these nonprofits. “It has given me a broader perspective on the industry, hearing people from all over and learning that there is such a wide range of issues and concerns.”
Palmer stated that the biggest concern for sugar makers is “fighting the age-old battle of fake table syrups versus real maple syrup. If we can get just one or two percent of that market, that would be the key.”
He’s also concerned about the dilution of the word maple in its use on many products that don’t have a real maple flavor. “People could get turned off to the overuse of the word maple if they’re expecting a certain flavor and then don’t get it,” he explained.
In addition, Palmer is aware that the sugaring season is starting later and ending earlier each year, and wonders what it’s going to be like 20 or 30 years down the line, and whether this is all part of a natural cycle.
“It’s tough to determine on a human time scale, but I want to make sure my kids have the opportunity to carry it on if they want to,” he said. “We’ve been able to coordinate technology to help production offset shorter seasons, but there’s probably a limit to how much we can do that.”