Seventy-five years ago Mildred and Roy Blocher purchased a farm in Salisbury in southwestern Pennsylvania covered with groves of maple trees and an operating sugar camp. They named it Milroy Farms, using their first names. Mildred brought her knowledge of maple learned from her grandfather, who produced maple syrup in the late 1800s. Their son, Gary, and grandson, Jason, now operate the farm.
Here, Jason shares some of his insight and experience.
What is your greatest joy in maple sugaring? I think the ability to work outside and be outdoors to enjoy all the seasons—good or bad weather—not stuck in an office job is enjoyable.
What is your biggest challenge? Labor. If you overcome the labor issue, everything falls into place. In all types of businesses, operators who have good help and good labor relations have mastered the most important part of any business.
Help in sugaring is sporadic. For instance, I might need people four days in a row, and then I might not need them for a week. The hours are not consistent, so finding help then also becomes inconsistent. Also, good help means the tapping job is done more efficiently.
How do you find good employees? Around Thanksgiving, I begin compiling names of potential workers. On any given day, I may call and only be able to get four or five people to help out of a list of 10 to 15 names. We are lucky that a majority of our help returns each year. It takes experience to know where to place taps and stay away from old taps. Skilled labor who understands the sugaring business and is knowledgeable about maintenance is able, for example, to check the lines for vacuum leaks.
Along with maple syrup in many sizes of containers, what other maple products do you make? We’ve stayed with pure maple products. Maple cream, candies, taffy, spread and crumb sugar. Except for the specialty maple cream, all are available all year. Candy is the most popular. All the products are available here at the farm, plus several retail markets, and our website, http://www.milroyfarms.com. Word-of-mouth drives our sales. People like our products and often send maple syrup gifts to relatives.
We strive to produce the best quality and flavor. By satisfying our customers, they return. People like the flavor—it cannot compare with artificial syrups. Now the public is more health conscious and wants to know about their food. They appreciate our absolute purity. Nothing else is added to syrup—it is an all-natural product. And it’s all made here, packaged here and shipped from here. Our customers know what they are getting. We know that maple syrup is often a luxury commodity, and we pride ourselves in the quality that we provide to our customers.
Milroy Farms has produced maple syrup for 75 years. How has your operation changed? My grandparents started with wooden buckets called Keelers and wooden taps. We’ve progressed through the years from wooden to steel buckets, from buckets to ground tubing and then aerial tubing. My grandparents collected sap in horse-drawn casks, and we now use tank trucks to gather our sap.
Sap once flowed only by gravitational force; now sap is gathered in tubing on a vacuum system to increase the yield without any adverse effects to the tree. We now use reverse osmosis to increase our efficiency by about 75 percent, and this year we are introducing a remote monitoring system into our operation.
All these improvements are efforts to not only become more efficient but to also do our part in protecting the environment by using less fossil fuels.
With our over 12,000 taps on 600 acres, efficiency becomes important.
What changes do you expect for the industry in the future? The biggest changes I see in the industry are changes in technology.
This year we put in a monitoring system to remotely show the tank levels in all the tanks in the woods. A screen in the sugar house tells us how much vacuum is maintained and the sap level through six different vacuum systems, each with five monitors. Since we are alerted in the sugar house of a pump failure or a break in a line, the system is much more efficient.
We, along with many in the industry, are continuously evolving. There is a new trend in “maple waters” that is in its infancy in the industry. Individual producers as well as the governing bodies of the maple world are working out the details of such a product.
There are also always threats to the environment and the maple trees, which have the potential to change the industry’s future.
What advice would you give anyone considering entering maple sugaring? Start in steps. Don’t become too big too fast. Keep in mind syrup and sugar will always do something you did not see before. There’s no guidebook. It doesn’t matter how much experience you have—it will throw you a curve you hadn’t seen earlier.
If you are getting into the business, you must realize that during the sugar season there are very long hours, including the weekends. You cannot just work “when it’s convenient.”
Lots of people have backyard trees and have started by boiling sap in a turkey cooker, and the next season got some equipment, and by a decade were constructing a bigger building. Sugaring can grow on you. My grandmother said, “It’s in your blood. You look forward to the season and look forward to the end of it.”
Your father, Gary, is currently vice president of the Somerset County Maple Syrup Producers Association, and you and your wife, Melissa, participate in the Pennsylvania Maple Festival in Meyersdale, Pennsylvania. How long has Milroy Farms been a part of these activities, and would you recommend them to other maple sugar producers? Dad has been involved with producers for 35 years and has been an officer for about 20 years. Last year our association hosted an international meeting and international tour. This four-day event was in preparation for over a year. The producers and the association received lots of compliments. Seventeen states and four Canadian provinces attended.
It is important to be involved in these organizations that promote awareness of the maple industry and, like all organizations, it takes many volunteers donating their time and talents to make the workload lighter for everyone.
Somerset County always has a Taste and Tour on the second weekend in March. Fifteen sugar camps in the county open their doors to visitors, offering tours of their camps and sweet samples.