Miller’s Purely Maple: Taking Maple on the Road

With more than 6,000 taps now, maple, which was once a hobby, has become a business.

You’d think that after driving a UPS route for 30-plus years before retiring Dale Miller would have had his fill with taking the show, or at least product, on the road.

But it depends whose product and show it is.

When it’s your own – Miller’s Purely Maple – taking maple on the road is a must and builds incredible pride, profit and follow-up sales, too.

“It’s a lot more satisfying having my name on the side of the trailer,” Miller said. “For UPS, I ran the same area for 27 years, and people knew me, but at the canyon my name is on the trailer. It’s my product that I made and put in the jug. People say you’re retired but still putting in all these hours, but I’m not working for the ‘man’ anymore, so it’s more satisfying.”

Miller’s Purely Maple in Wellsboro, Pennsylvania, has been an expanding operation. With more than 6,000 taps now, maple, which was once a hobby, has become a business, and to make it thrive, Dale and his wife, Melanie, travel 25,000 miles a year with maple to participate in three shows and a local fair. The canyon is the PA Grand Canyon in Leonard Harrison State Park in Wellsboro, where the couple is four years into a 10-year exclusive contract and spends 70 days a year on summertime weekends and permanently camped in the fall – a tourist attraction – from the third week of September to the third week of October.

A 20-mile trip from home, the Millers leave a concession trailer on-site in the fall, then travel in each morning to open shop and sell maple and maple food items all day before a one-hour cleanup and return trip home. During summer weekends, they transport product every day, but in the fall they have locked, stocked cabinets on-site.

“There’s a lot of prep time in getting products ready,” Dale said. “We have a wide range. It’s not just syrup, and we never know what people will buy, so we take a fair amount and can still run out because [tourists] buy what we don’t think they will. We spend eight hours open there at the canyon, but it’s a 10- to 12-hour day for us, seven days a week in the fall.”

Maple on the move

The Millers, who are in their 21st year in sugaring and make about half their maple income on canyon days, aren’t the only ones who survive and thrive on the road.

Fellow Potter-Tioga Maple Producers Association members Jim and Dora Tice in Mainesburg, Pennsylvania, also move product by moving it around, most notably at the Pennsylvania Farm Show, a mega-event each January for the last 100 years. They’ve been sugaring for 35-some years, and have learned the importance of hitting the highway.

Ironically, Jim, too, spent time driving a truck – a dump trailer that hauled sand for construction blasting to the same location every morning, a 400-mile roundtrip. He was back home every night – boiling down sap on many of them – but the last thing you’d think he’d want to do is drive somewhere else come the weekend. The state farm show, their first event of the year, is over 100 miles away, as are a couple other shows, though most are 20- to 30-mile trips.

“The PA Farm Show (where they’re consistent winners in numerous maple categories, including four of six entries this past year) is the longest show,” Jim said. “I take [Dora] down three days before the show starts to set up. I come home. She stays 10 days, then I go down at the end of show to work a couple days, then pack up and bring things home. Dora wonders why we’re still doing it. I’m 71. She’s 69. We enjoy it, but it’s also a good part of our income now.”

In addition to participating in the Potter-Tioga Maple Producers’ annual Maple Weekend, Jim and Dora also attend craft shows, and in Mansfield they participate in the annual Fourth of July and the Fabulous 1890s Weekend celebration that commemorates the first night-time football game held at Mansfield University’s Smythe Park in September 1892. In all, they participate in about a dozen annual shows as an association or as individuals. The Tices also participate in out-of-state maple tours as a nonselling learning experience.

There’s no roadside sign at home, their maple farm is 1.5 miles uphill, and a lot of time they’re not home so there’s no self-service; therefore meeting buyers on-site is essential and far more personal. “They have questions that we try to answer,” he said. “We educate, and then we find we have customers who place orders for the rest of the season. They also see who wins [at the farm show] and flock to those sales booths. We get a lot of exposure there.”

Exposure is the name of the game for the Millers, too. In the 585-acre park, alongside the 60-mile long canyon where there are exceptional views and access to what’s rated one of the top 10 hike-and-bike, rails-to-trails spot in the U.S., 90 percent or so of their buyers are tourists. They sell maple-inspired food, too, like maple hot dogs, maple funnel cakes, maple cotton candy, maple milkshakes, and interact with 10,000 people a year there, or 200 to 400 consumers a day.

“There’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes, like making sure you have your bases covered from a legal standpoint,” said Dale, who might attract 600 to 700 open house visitors on the association tour the third weekend in March. “There are entry-level points [in sugaring sales], then you progress up. A concession trailer at a canyon is not where you’d want to start. You have to be experienced and have ideas behind you, but when we started, we partnered with local firehouses for pancake breakfasts and did smaller, local craft shows before expanding. There are a lot of shows where no one sells maple. Don’t steal others’ ideas, but rather start your own. Find shows where there isn’t anybody selling maple and make your niche.”

Finding time-savers and profit-makers

Jim and Dora started tapping their own trees in 1968, a year after he returned from serving in Vietnam, eventually enlisting the help of mentor Lawrence Roloson, known throughout the area as the “Grandfather of Maple.” A decade later, they built their own sap house on their 58 acres. Much of the land doesn’t have maple growing on it, so they tap approximately 400 trees there and the rest – some 4,000 – are rented on six neighboring farms. They average 600 to 900 gallons of syrup a year.

Now, it’s about saving time and money, tall tasks when it takes time to take the show on the road. After 35 years of burning with wood, this will be the third year since building a wood-burning kit in the evaporator in which wood chips from a local logger are fed. The system takes care of itself, leaving time for packing a van with maple products or equipment, like a cotton candy machine, or even the association’s enclosed trailer that heads to the state farm show.

What and how much to bring depends on past sales at each location, and then you hope there isn’t an enormous snowstorm like the one 20 years ago that led to a rough week in central Pennsylvania. Some might not make – or take – anything but syrup, but the whole association sold 6,000 bags of maple cotton candy this past year.

On the association’s Maple Weekend, the Tices also provide maple cookies, ice cream with peanut butter-maple topping, maple-coated popcorn and the ever-popular hot dogs boiled in maple syrup.

Dora makes candy and cream a few days ahead of a show, and cotton candy the day before the show, or if it’s a bigger show, like the farm show, they take the machine (now a 20-year-old investment that’s long paid for itself) along and make it on-site. “It was once unique, but now five or six others in county are doing it,” Jim said.

The Millers also have a shop at the farm, and sell on the internet, so they’re more diversified in “getting our name out,” said Dale. “But we do a lot of business after we’ve been to the canyon. Clients order on our website, or people are back in the area and stop at the shop, but nothing beats getting out there and meeting face-to-face when they can see you and talk to you. It makes a big difference.”

Interaction equals sales.

“When you’re on the road, you also have to have the personality to do it,” Dale said. “I’ve always had the knack for it: My dad had me selling camp firewood at 12 since we live next to Hills Creek State Park [in Wellsboro], and I still sell it. I’ve always interacted, working with 100 UPS customers a day. You have to put a smile on your face so the people feel comfortable.”

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Photos: Miller’s Purely Maple