When third-generation sugarmaker Mark Soukoup took over Soukoup Farms in 2013, he set to work expanding the Dover Plains, New York, farm, increasing from 800 to 3,000 taps spread across three sugar bushes.
“We wanted to take it from a side business into a business that turns a profit,” Soukoup explained.
Soukoup is among a growing number of maple producers expanding operations.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture Census of Agriculture shows a miniscule uptick in the number of maple farms from 8,121 in 2007 to 8,261 in 2012, but significant gains in the number of taps. Producers set 11,35,403 taps in 2012, up from 8,369,856 in 2007. The biggest gains were seen on the largest farms; producers with more than 10,000 taps almost doubled between 2007 and 2012, with Vermont showing the largest increase in the number of farms and New York adding the most new taps.
Henry Marckres, maple specialist at the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, told the Associated Press, “Because the price has been good and stable, we’ve had many more people get into the business; others expand.”
A study published in the Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development noted that national per capita consumption of maple syrup has increased 155 percent over the past 35 years but production has not kept pace, forcing the U.S. to import four times more syrup than it produces. The combination of a domestic syrup shortage and price increases has caused sugarmakers to expand production, leading the authors to note that sugarmaking is, “Experiencing a rebirth in the 21st century.”
Preparing for expansion
When Soukoup took over the farm, he created an expansion plan. Rather than focusing on the current operation, he focused on the end goal of tapping 5,000 trees.
“We thought about where we wanted to be at maximum production and worked backwards from there,” he recalled. “It’s tough to predict the future but we knew we had to try.”
Soukoup knew expanding to 5,000 taps required building a larger sugarhouse, investing in a more efficient evaporator, adding a reverse osmosis machine and upgrading to new bottling equipment – all significant expenses. Rather than taking on debt, Soukoup opted to spread out the investments over several seasons. He built a new sugarhouse in 2014, tripled the number of taps to 2,400 in 2015, upgraded to a 3×10 evaporator and installed a reverse osmosis machine in 2016 and added 800 more taps in 2017. He plans to purchase new bottling equipment in the upcoming season. A one-time $2,000 grant from the USDA Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) helped offset part of the new equipment expense.
Soukoup also thought about production goals when choosing equipment, opting for an evaporator that could accommodate the sap from 5,000 trees.
“We’re always thinking ahead one, two, five and 10 years, coordinating all of the different pieces to make good decisions about expanding,” he said.
Al Stein also spent a lot of time planning for expansion on his 30-acre Corfu, New York, farm.
Since 2009, Stein has increased the number of taps at Sweet Dream Maple Farm from 700 to 1,200, eliminating buckets and moving all of the taps to vacuum tubing.
Before adding the new taps, Stein focused on boosting efficiencies in his existing operation, explaining, “Expansion without efficiency is foolish.”
Making the woodlot and the sugarhouse more efficient included purchasing a bigger evaporator and reverse osmosis machine, upgrading to higher quality taps and adding more taps to the mainline to improve the effectiveness of the vacuum system. Stein also expanded the original 240-square-foot sugarhouse to 1,200 square feet to accommodate the new equipment.
“When I was more efficient, I knew I could handle expansion,” he recalled.
Managing the workload
Even though Stein spends less time boiling – an upgrade from a 2.5×8 evaporator to a 3×10 more than doubled the amount of sap he boiled per hour and a more efficient wood-fired rig decreased the hours he spent in the woods cutting trees – the workload at Sweet Dream Maple Farm still increased.
“No matter how efficient you are, you’re signing up for more work when you expand,” he said.
Lisa Bouchard agreed.
“The time we spend making syrup hasn’t increased because we got a bigger evaporator and RO but we devote a lot more time to the operation since we expanded,” she explained.
After the lease on a sugar bush with 400 taps ended in 2011, Bouchard signed a long-term lease on land with 900 taps near her home in Barrington, New Hampshire, doubling production for Spring Harvest Maple Farm almost overnight. As one of only a few sugarhouses in the Seacoast region, “We always sell out,” she said, but managing the workload has been challenging.
Like other sugarmakers who expand their operations, Bouchard spends more time bottling and packaging syrup but most of the extra workload comes from making value-added products like maple sugar, maple cream and chocolate-covered maple truffles. Spring Harvest Maple Farms adds new products each season, which requires a lot of recipe testing in the offseason.
“It’s great that we’re able to sell all of what we make but the actual production, making all of these things, that takes a lot of extra time,” she said.
None of the sugarmakers at Spring Harvest Maple Farm, Soukoup Farms or Sweet Dream Maple Farm have hired new staff to help manage the workload. Instead, each works alongside their spouses and logs extra hours in the sugarhouse but all agree that the bigger the farm, the more it makes sense to hire extra help – and that cost needs to be factored into expansion plans.
Tapping into new markets
Once maple syrup is bottled, sugarmakers need adequate sales channels to ensure products go from farm to table. Farmers markets, festivals, on-farm sales and wholesale accounts are all popular sales channels.
“The markets do concern me sometimes. The more we expand, the harder we need to work to market our products,” Stein said. “But the potential of the market is an allure for me.”
Stein, like other producers, benefits from efforts of the New York State Maple Producers Association events such as Maple Weekend. The statewide event helps Sweet Dream Maple Farm attract customers and generates significant on-farm sales. Expanding the sugarhouse allowed the farm to accommodate more visitors and generate additional sales.
For Bouchard, finding a market for Spring Harvest Maple Farm’s products is not an issue: She rented land with an additional 400 taps to access more sap to meet local demand. The challenge was figuring out which value-added products had the best market potential.
“Every year, we think about what our customers want and what will set us apart from others,” she explained.
Bouchard attends the annual Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association Maplerama event to see what sugarmakers in her neighboring state are selling and monitors sales during New Hampshire’s Maple Weekend. This season, maple popcorn was a huge hit, selling out within hours; Bouchard plans to make more for 2018 while pulling back on maple caramels, which were less popular.
Soukoup knew he couldn’t expand from 800 to 3,000 taps without tapping into additional markets. In 2013, Soukoup Farms participated in 10 festivals; as syrup production increased, so did their festival attendance. Last season, the farm generated 60 percent of its sales from attendance at 50 festivals.
Expanding the sugarhouse allowed Soukoup to increase the size of the farm store (where he generates 30 percent of annual sales) and he continues working to land additional wholesale and retail accounts.
“We knew we could easily make more syrup; the problem was selling more syrup,” Soukoup said. “When we started expanding five years ago, we never imagined this was the direction we’d be heading, but the more we expand, the more I want to keep wanting to get bigger and bigger.”