When the sap starts flowing at Kettle Ridge Farm, Joe Hurley has a little help in the sugar bush.

As part of an Adopt-a-Maple program, “adopters” are invited to help tap the trees on the Victor, New York farm and, in appreciation for their work, Kettle Ridge Farm places a name plaque on the adopted tree and shares in the bounty when fresh maple syrup is ready.

“Small producers like Kettle Ridge Farm face a big challenge in competing with the volume and pricing of larger producers so special packaging and innovative activities help us,” Hurley explained.

The idea for adopt-a-tree programs comes from similar initiatives offered through zoos and conservation groups. Instead of adopting a zoo animal or stream, maple producers place trees in their sugarbushes up for “adoption” using the fees to help offset operational costs and ensure producers have a market for their harvest.

The sugar shack at Kettle Ridge Farm is a picturesque spot for families to learn about sugar-making. Photo courtesy of Kettle Ridge Farm.

The niche offerings are gaining favor with maple producers. Kettle Ridge Farm, Anderson’s Maple Syrup, Agricola Farm, Hartshorn Sugarbush and Vasseur Maple Sugar Farm and Sweet Whisper Farms all invite visitors to adopt their own maple trees, offering a memorable experience and a share of the harvest in exchange for an adoption fee.

Kettle Ridge Farm launched its Adopt-a-Maple program in 2015 as a creative marketing strategy that complemented its existing agritourism activities. This season, the farm offered two packages: Adopt-a-Maple, which included a name plaque, adoption certificate, two 375 ml bottles of maple syrup and one nine-ounce jar of honey for $65 and Adopt-a-Maple PLUS that included all of the features of the Adopt-a-Maple program as well as extras, including a farm tour, maple tasting and the opportunity to tap a tree for $85.

Hurley plans to make “significant changes” to the offerings in advance of the 2018 season, explaining, “Managing the Adopt-a-Maple program is extremely time-consuming.”

Kettle Ridge Farm has 1,400 taps on 40 acres. Since the program runs throughout the season, the “adoptable” trees are tapped at different times, which has a negative impact on sap yield. Moreover, managing the logistics is challenging.

“We invite adopters to come out to the farm to help tap their tree and have a tour and tasting so there is a lot of scheduling that has to be done that does not fit into our normal tapping schedule,” Hurley explained.

The farm also mails out packages to adopters, which requires packing boxes and trekking to the post office.

In Vermont, sugarmakers at Hartshorn Sugarbush and Vasseur Maple Sugar Farm loved the idea of an adopt-a-tree program but did not want to take time away from sugaring to oversee its execution so the sugarmakers partnered with marketing firm Tonewood Maple to handle the details.

At Maple Moon Sugarbush in Petoskey, Michigan, Christi Petersen took a different approach to an adoption program.

In 2917, as part of the annual Kid’s Day festivities, children wrote their names on barrels filled with maple syrup. Petersen posts a note on social media to let children know when “their” barrel of syrup is being bottled and adopters are invited to go to the sugarhouse to pick up an eight-ounce bottle.

The offering was less labor intense than inviting kids to tap trees and hanging (and checking) buckets. And, although Maple Moon Sugarbush didn’t charge an adoption fee, it still proved to be a valuable marketing tool. Families often purchase additional products when they pick up their “adopted” bottle.

“The reaction has been great and we are reaping the benefits of good reviews in our community,” Petersen said. “I will definitely do it again.”