Unlike most maple producers, Mark Hedman and his wife, Colleen, did not enter the maple industry with the intention of preserving generations of family tradition. Instead, it was an unexpected discovery while walking in the woods on their property in Brockport, New York, that encouraged them to give it a try.
When the couple first purchased the piece of property more than five years ago, collecting sap and boiling it into syrup was the farthest thing from their minds. “We’ve lived all over the country, bought and sold a lot of houses. When we’re looking to buy a new home, I always look at the property appraisal and consider the best use for the land in addition to having a house on it,” he explained.
Since the property is located just outside the city of Rochester, his first instinct was to use the wood lot for hiking or nature trails and provide a destination for folks to enjoy the outdoors. He also considered harvesting the wood lot for timber.
A casual walk through the woods changed all his plans. “I found one tree out of the thousands out there that had a shiny thing barely sticking out of the bark,” he reminisced. After several days of pondering what it could be, he realized it was an abandoned maple spout. He predicts the spout was forgotten at the end of one maple season decades ago because the bark had grown so thick it nearly enveloped the entire spout.
Accidental find turns into sweet success
The accidental discovery of that one, old maple tap was enough to inspire Mark to try producing syrup. “I thought how steep could the learning curve be?” he recalled. He and Colleen didn’t have the experiences of family members to draw from for advice so they began attending workshops, talking with other producers and reading about the process of making maple syrup. In 2010, the couple placed their first round of taps and began collecting sap.
“We’re still pretty small, only placing about 500 taps each season, but it’s enough to produce sellable amounts of syrup,” he said. At first he thought about installing vacuum tubing, but decided against it in an effort to maintain the natural look of the woods. Rather than using tubing, he chose a tap and bag system. “It’s worked out well. Using a pair of binoculars I can see how much sap is in each bag from my house,” he said.
Monitoring the collection rate from the comfort of inside the house has saved him countless hours in the cold New York winters. Once his collection bags are full, he heads out with a tractor and tank trailer to collect all the sap. Upon his return to the garage, he’s able to back the tractor and trailer into the garage and pump the sap into a reverse osmosis (RO) machine, preparing it for boiling.
“The original goal for buying a RO machine was to use less wood to fire the evaporator and to spend less hours boiling,” he said. Prior to purchasing a RO machine, he spent nearly 11 hours boiling sap into syrup. Now that he uses the RO machine to remove excess water to produce a concentrate, he spends only four to five hours boiling. “It’s also allowed us to use 60 percent less wood each season,” he said.
Reducing the amount of wood needed to fuel the fire is equally as important as saving on time since he relies on his own labor and wood lot to provide the “fuel” for his 2- by 6-foot evaporator. Long after maple season is over, he’s out in the woods selecting trees for culling and subsequently cutting, splitting and stacking the logs for use during the next maple season.
His small operation allows him the time and opportunity to ensure his maple syrup is top notch. “I don’t want to just make syrup – I want to make good syrup. I watch it very closely during boiling to make sure it has the right density,” he said. Spending time boiling the sap into syrup provides ample time for taste testing too. “Of course I get to test it all day long,” he laughed.
Maple syrup is exclusive focus
Early on, he decided that rather than producing multiple maple products, he would instead focus his efforts on maple syrup. “At first I wanted to be Mr. Maple for everything,” he explained, “We found that the local market only wants syrup, but we do make special orders of other products when they are requested.”
Although his business has been successful using the bag system, this summer he’ll likely install the first tubing lines on his property in an effort to expand production capabilities. “Volume increases even without adding more taps,” he said. “You’re guaranteed just about double just by going with tubing and vacuum.”
In addition to following the traditional maple season, which happens every spring, Mark and Colleen tap their trees again in the fall. “We get less volume, but it doesn’t hurt the trees as much,” he said. The fall of 2011 was the first autumn maple season for the couple, but it has provided enough volume to make it worth the effort.
Regardless of the time of year, Mark most enjoys working at the evaporator. “I like feeding the evaporator and watching it boil,” he said. It’s definitely a chore that is warmer and drier than working out in the woods. “I also get to taste it all day long when I’m feeding the inferno,” he laughed.
Despite spending much of their lives in regions of the country unable to produce maple syrup and not having the benefit of watching older generations to learn the craft, Mark and Colleen have quickly mastered the art of producing high-quality, good tasting maple syrup. “Sweden Hills Maple Syrup: It’s REAL GOOD!, is our tagline and it says it all,” he concluded.
For more information about Sweden Hills Maple Syrup, call (585) 299-7050 or email SwedenHillsMaple@aol.com. Sweden Hills Maple Syrup is a member of the New York Maple Producers Association.
Photos courtesy of Sweden Hills