Sprague’s Maple Farms plan to take their operation to new levels

It isn’t difficult to discern the differences at Sprague’s Maple Farms in Portville, New York. The setting in the picturesque Allegheny Mountain Region notwithstanding, it’s also what owner-operators Antoinette and Randy Sprague have set up a transparent operation from tap to table with tours, sugaring demonstrations and year-round open trails in a 90-acre stand of woods surrounding their popular restaurant, Sprague’s Maple Farms Restaurant and Pancake House, where breakfast is served all day and many other down-home meals have 100 percent pure maple syrup in them as well.

“It’s unique to see it all in one place at this level,” Randy admitted. “We think we offer a high-quality restaurant experience, a real family experience, the ability to walk the trails to see what’s all there, the fall foliage, and the wagon rides for that. It’s a real destination location.”

As production wrapped up this past spring, the perfect weather had arrived at the perfect time, and a late surge in production reversed late-start fears in what may be the most weather-dependent crop in all of agriculture.

Randy Sprague works hard in the farm's sugarhouse.

Randy Sprague works hard in the farm’s sugarhouse.

“The window is so short and the temperature, even a degree or two one way or another, can make all the difference,” Randy said. “Every season is so different. The production season hinges on those two or three weeks, and it can be good or bad.”
Fortunately for well-positioned and deeply-vested Sprague’s, good seasons are par for the course. The operation’s 30-plus years and 30,000 taps puts it in a league of its own, or at least in the upper 10 percent of the larger producers in New York.
“We try to position ourselves,” Randy explained. “A key to being successful is to be ready every season, even if you have to tap as early as January. You have to be ready for an early season so you’re not missing what Mother Nature dishes out. If you open early, and you’re not ready, half the season can be gone.”

He hasn’t missed much of anything since he took up sugaring as a hobby as a boy. He bought his first evaporator at age 16. He incorporated the business in 1983, and has continued to grow the operation since. The Spragues built their all-in-one 13,000-square-foot maple facility and restaurant in 2000 and opened there in 2001. As a hobby, the young Randy began with a dozen taps down his home’s driveway.

The restaurant is open seven days a week, and the Spragues put in 14-hour days. Prior to 2001, production was run out of a smaller sugarhouse a half-mile away at a smaller family farm, Sprague’s Turkey Farms, a free-range operation that they’re taking over this summer since Randy’s father has passed away. The business also owns 120 acres outside town, and farmland across from the restaurant, too.

Today, the Spragues own a third of their taps, and the other two-thirds are leased. In total, there’s some 1,000 acres of trees and taps, but they also buy sap by the gallon from other quality producers.

“It’s not critical what we own as long as we’re getting the volume of sap we’re looking for from our woods and those around us,” Randy said. “The equipment is really expensive, and it only runs a couple weeks a year, so when we can make product we push the equipment almost around the clock. Tankers haul sap from nine locations back to our evaporating facility.”

Mass maple production

The production side of Sprague’s maple business begins with reverse osmosis. Their equipment handles 4,000 gallons of sap per hour, which reduces 85 percent of the water from it. That batch is then fed into an evaporator that boils away another 600 gallons of concentrate an hour, producing 80 gallons of syrup per hour. Most days in season, the equipment is running 12 to 18 hours a day, shutting down only to clean it.

“A lot of people see us making syrup, but we spend as much time cleaning equipment,” Randy said. “The tanks are washed daily. The evaporator pans are washed two or three times a day to keep sugar buildup down and to prevent any syrup from getting scorched.” sprague's fall 08 021

Modern-day production rates are almost double the yield from the old sap bucket days. By the mid-1980s, reverse osmosis revolutionized large-scale production. Typically others in that era once lined up multiple evaporators in one smaller sugarhouse to handle 10,000 or more taps. Today, Sprague’s uses one 4- by 14-foot evaporator with its RO. It used to take four to five gallons of fuel oil per hour to make one gallon of syrup. Now, it takes a bit more than a quart of fuel oil to make a gallon of syrup.

In all, Sprague’s employs 100 people. The maple operation has eight full-time employees besides themselves. Antoinette’s son, Adam Robinson, heads food operations for the restaurant.

And Sprague’s is still looking for opportunity to grow, though it needs a good stand of maple to justify purchasing additional tubing, vacuum pumps, collection tanks, etc… not to mention resulting energy costs, and even having roads suitable for tankers. “Access is getting harder to find,” Randy said. “Or maybe we’ll just try to expand from locations we’re already at.”
Sprague’s has what Randy called a “five-or-less-year plan.” Randy’s comfortable with maple sales and restaurant patronage, though there’s room there, too, for more seating, and even a conference center to share the maple industry.

“Today four busloads of kids were here, and we’ll have two more weeks with that,” Randy said back in April. “We have our (two) maple weekends (in March). The way we laid out the facility allows us to educate the public as to what we do, the history and current-day technology. We can show them the process of making syrup, then they can go to the restaurant and order menu items that use syrup.”

The addition of a rustic sugarhouse and Indian village have enhanced the educational tours. With marked trails and bird feeders, visitors learn something about the ecology of the forest that they’re touring, too.

The transparency enhances the bottom line, if indirectly. Customers enjoy the experience and are quick to pass that experience along. There’s no charge for demonstrations, but the constant feedback—first-time participants saying they can’t wait to tell others what they’ve found—“brings new people in and keeps us going,” Randy explained.

Setting an example

M3-13-11 042The Spragues are first to concede that it takes planning and commitment, even soul searching, to commit to the level they have. “It’s an endeavor that doesn’t happen without the full-time experience of the owners,” Randy said. “An operation of this size is something no one takes lightly.”

But they’ve remained humble, too, knowing that maple is an industry showing every sign of expanding. Within the entire maple belt, they’re New England producers with 100,000 taps. With the value of maple products, it’s reasonable to get a return, Randy said, but following a couple big years, prices have begun to slip a bit on the bulk market. Sprague’s is also a distributor of sugaring equipment, which helps boost the bottom line and gauge how busy other operations are.

“Based on the requests for additional containers this year, we’re approaching one of our better years,” he said.

A good production year for Sprague’s nets 7,000 to 8,000 gallons of syrup, but there have been uncooperative weather seasons where less than 2,000 gallons of product have been realized. In years like that, even the restaurant would run short, so Randy supplements by purchasing reserves from maple bank warehouses in New Hampshire and often Canada. “In our good years, we try to have production that carries into next year, just in case,” he said.

No matter how successful the season, it’s an exhausting stretch, and Sprague’s is like every other producer: “Like everyone says, the two best days in the maple season are the first and the last,” Randy said. “We’re all optimistic, but some years we all get pounded. But we all come back for another year. It’s a lot of labor, so you have to enjoy putting that work into it.”

For more, visit spraguesmaplefarms.com.