While it boils down to sales, there is more to hosting a successful maple syrup open house than dollars in the till.
“I like to see folks with smiles on their faces as they leave,” Craig Line, owner of Kents’ Corner Sugarhouse, Calais, Vermont, said.
While purchasing jars of syrup is more than welcomed, Line – like most operators who participate in open house festivities – knows that his primary mission is to educate and even entertain guests.
This year, the Easter weekend plays hob with many schedules, so the state associations worked around the holiday.
The statewide open house at Vermont sugar bushes will be April 2-3. Sponsored by the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association, farms offer many activities – and syrup sampling is always one. Some hold pancake breakfasts. Others offer wagon or sleigh rides. Some sugarhouses let guests ski or snowshoe through the woods. Others offer a chance to taste authentic Sugar-on-Snow.
New York’s Maple Weekend has farms hosting open houses on March 18-19 as well as the April 2-3 weekend that the Vermonters run. Almost 160 maple producers across New York State open their facilities to show people how maple syrup and related maple products are made, taking the educational opportunity from tree to table.
New Hampshire’s weekend will be March 19-20. Pennsylvania’s Maple Taste & Tour Weekends vary by region but generally will also run March 19-20 this year or the following weekend.
One man’s tours
Kents’ Corner Sugarhouse is a moderate size operation with 1,100 taps. Craig Line’s operation is up a small road and people have to search to find it. For this reason, it’s his practice to put up directional signs on open house weekends and to put up signs at Maple Corner inviting people to visit.
He knows that many people, on a rare drive through the countryside, are apt to overlook him. In fact, he knows that many people are attracted to the big operations on state highways. Some of those farms might attract a dozen or more busses each day of the open house. Each disgorges 35 or 40 guests who are shepherded through the maple syrup process and then welcomed to browse the gift shop.
“They sell hundreds of products,” Line said. “I have a sugar house in the woods.”
As a result, his approach to the guest experience is a bit more subtle and casual. On a good weekend event, he may entertain 75 guests. On weekends when the weather simply does not cooperate and traffic is slight, he may get only 20 or 25 people to stop by.
“Last year (2015), things were all frozen up,” he said. Visitor numbers plummeted. Just like farmers everywhere, he is realistic about the weather and has learned to work around Mother Nature. A freeze-out or snow-out happens about half the time, he said.
In a good year, he will sell between 50 and 100 jars in an afternoon. “But I’d tell anyone not to get their expectations up too high,” he said.
The syrup-making approach at Kents’ Corner Sugarhouse is much more akin to a craft beer brewery. “I’m really hands-on,” Line said. “I burn wood. I taste every batch. The size of my operation has a lot to do with my being able to do that.”
While he respects the big operations and their need to boil efficiently, he is proud of his small, woodchip-fired operation.
Line said that wood-fired stoves are what people want to see when they come to tour a maple syrup producer. “It just isn’t right to step inside a sugar house and smell an oil stove,” he said. “People don’t expect to see an evaporator the size of a locomotive.” Thus, his “small is beautiful” approach to syrup making.
The result at his sugarhouse is a more personal experience, for him as an operator and for the guests.
Line expects to maintain a more intimate experience and to continue to know each batch personally from the tip of his tongue to the color in the jar.
“I have a lot of respect for the large operations,” he said, “but I have no desire to be a 2,000- or 5,000-tap operation. For me, it is a more personal experience.”
When setting up the annual open house, the Maple Sugar Makers’ Association does the heavy lifting for producers statewide. That starts with setting the date yearly and publicizing times and all participating operations on its website.
It is each participating farm’s responsibility to describe the experience it will provide to its visitors. While the general dates and times for the weekend’s events are outlined by the Vermont association, individual sugar bushes might open a bit earlier or be closed to guests on Sunday. That’s fully in the domain of the owner.
All owners specify the type of operation he or she runs and the extent of tours available. They talk about the tastings available and the kinds of treats that might be offered. They give a quick rundown on whether the sap at each operation is gathered in buckets, is taken down the hill in tubes, or whether the sugar bush has a combination of both.
Equally important is to let visitor know whether the operation relies on oil-fired boilers or is woodchip run and to provide other details, including directions.
Sugaring is part of Craig Line’s family heritage. He grew up on a family homestead in Ohio. His grandfather tapped trees and so did his father. Now in Vermont, Line continues a tradition he loves. “I’m living in Mecca,” he said, adding that Vermont is the best place in the world for maple syrup. (Readers, you may send all challenges to that statement directly to Craig!).
Still, local pride in production is just that kind of message that producers everywhere seek to share with guests on the big weekend. Educate potential customers about what to look for in quality syrup. An educated, excited guest is one who is likely to buy at the farm and later.