Sugaring in western New York is a family affair.
Nine year-old Colin Dunning is a budding entrepreneur.
Each winter he places 200 taps to collect sap. For 50 of those taps, he uses traditional buckets. For the other 150 taps, he uses gravity tubing to direct the sap into a large storage container.
Some days, Colin has help from his younger sister Allie. At other times when he needs assistance, he recruits his friends. He sells most of the sap he gathers to his parents’ growing business, Out On A Limb Maple Farm, LLC (Colin and his friends make up the Axe Boys Maple division of the operation). He processes the remaining sap with a secondhand 2-by-4-foot wood-fired evaporator.
“He only boils on weekends [with adult supervision] so he can focus on his homework and other chores during the week,” said Vanessa Dunning, Colin’s mother.
Taste tests prove he has the skill needed to produce high-quality maple products. At last year’s county fair, he received a blue ribbon in the 4-H division, and his maple syrup was selected for entry in the New York State Fair, where he also earned a blue ribbon in the 4-H division.
“This year, Colin will be entering his syrup not only as a 4-H project, but in the commercial division of the county fair to see how well he can compete with the well-established sugar makers of the county,” she noted.
Not only is Colin learning the tradition of sugaring, he’s also learning that hard work pays off. “The money he earns is paying for his dirt bike,” Dunning explained.
This up-and-coming maple producer has his parents to thank for his early success. In 2010, Dunning and her husband, Shawn, established Out On A Limb Maple Farm as a tribute to their grandparents. “Both of us had grandfathers that had shown us when we were young, and we were interested in showing our son how real maple syrup is made,” Dunning said.
The operation is located in the small rural town of Wyoming, New York, which is a short drive from western New York’s largest cities, Rochester and Buffalo. Though noted as one of the earliest locations where natural gas was developed in the late 1870s, the area has a plentiful supply of maple trees.
Beginning with just under 1,000 taps in 2010, Out On A Limb Maple Farm expanded to 1,750 taps in 2011, and then increased the number of taps again to 14,000 in 2014. “We expect to be around 18,000 in 2015,” Dunning noted. To continue expanding, the Dunnings plan to purchase sap collected off the farm to supplement the products made on-site in 2015. “We hope to continue to grow to establish a business to pass to our children if they choose that path,” Dunning said.
To manage the volume of trees in production, the Dunnings rely on a gravity system. Taut lateral tubing lines zigzag between trees and meet up at a main line that directs the sap into a temporary storage container.
Erratic winter weather conditions make it difficult for maple producers to predict the amount of sap that will be collected each year. Vacuum tubing systems significantly increase the amount of sap drawn out of each tree, increasing the chances for a productive season. Producers rely on gravity to draw the sap out of the tree rather than wait for Mother Nature to supply the ideal weather conditions for sap to flow naturally.
After the sap from the temporary storage container is trucked back to the Dunnings’ sugarhouse, it’s cycled through two reverse osmosis machines assembled in a two-pass configuration before it goes into the evaporator. Originally designed for water purification, reverse osmosis machines use a semipermeable membrane to separate water, sugar, minerals and other impurities.
Boiling sap to remove excess water is a time-consuming and costly process. A reverse osmosis machine speeds the process up by removing water and increasing sugar content. Raw sap has a 2 percent sugar concentration. After passing through a reverse osmosis machine, the sugar content in sap increases to between 4 and 10 percent, which significantly reduces boiling time and fuel costs to achieve comparable sugar contents.
Once filtered, the Dunnings use a 6-by-16-foot oil-fired CDL evaporator and CDL steam pan to boil off the remaining water and turn the sap into syrup. Some of the syrup is then used to make maple cream, maple candy, maple sugar, snack mix, walnut topping, baked goods, specialty candies and more.
Visitors can stop by the sugarhouse gift shop between December and April to purchase products. Orders are also accepted by phone, email or appointment the remainder of the year. Out On A Limb maple products are also sold at farmstands and small shops in eastern and western New York.
The Dunnings are passionate about sharing the maple sugaring tradition with others. “We offer school and other group tours, and we participate in New York State Maple Weekend open houses,” Dunning said. “We provide free tours of the sugarhouse [and] lead syrup-making demonstrations on both the wood-fired small evaporator Colin uses and the large oil-fired evaporator.”
On-site demonstrations include activities for all members of the family, from face painting and coloring contests for the youngest visitors to free samples of maple products and grilled foods basted in maple syrup/sugar that all ages can enjoy. Another popular demonstration explains how the Dunnings make maple soda using club soda and maple syrup. “It’s great for younger-age children – providing it’s not right before bedtime,” she said.
Creating a successful maple business takes a lot of hard work and long hours in the cold winter weather, but the rewards are great. Dunning said, “We most enjoy having a family business that allows us to spend time outdoors, create a natural product and educate the public.”