From Sap to Sugar

For many years, Chuck Winship worked in an office and dreamed of working in the woods. Outdoors in the woods is where he wants to be, and maple syrup production is a big part of how he is making his dreams come true.

A native of Fairport, Winship was a professional manager for 35 years. He retired from Xerox and now owns and operates Sugar Bush Hollow Farm in Springwater, located at the south end of Honeoye Lake in Livingston County.

Winship fully appreciates the modern relevance of a community sap house. Gathering together to do nothing more than watch the sap boil into maple syrup has a calming and healing effect.

“When people come into the sugar house, you can see their pace slow down immediately. The boiling sap engages all the senses and that is a very pleasant experience. It is just a totally relaxed pace and your cares go right out the window,” Winship said. “I encourage people to stop by and visit any time. It’s a great place to be.”

The sugar house on the premises of the Loomis Barn and Country Shops in Rushville, is a favorite gathering place for maple sugar enthusiasts in Yates County. During the spring boiling season, Paul Curtis and a small group of friends can often be found hanging out talking in the warm sugar house while they watch the sap boil into syrup. Curtis has been maple sugaring for most of his life.

“It’s still fascinating to me. Sap is almost like water, and then as you boil it, it becomes this delicious food,” Curtis said.

Throughout the Finger Lakes, people are fascinated by this maple sugar process, which takes sap from the native maple tree and turns it into an all-natural food that is delicious in a variety of forms. According to data from the New York Agricultural Statistics Service, there are over 225 maple producers in the 14 counties of the Finger Lakes and that number continues to grow steadily.

The greatest number of producers is in Steuben County, but maple sugar production facilities can be found throughout the entire Finger Lakes area. These operations are of every size and every variety, but they all have one feature in common. The people who run them absolutely love what they do.

Turning maple sap into maple syrup is a great deal of hard work. Generally, it takes about 40 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of maple syrup.

The maple season is very brief and it is fickle, as the sap run is greatly impacted by weather conditions. Taps to collect the sap are usually put into the trees in very late February. Sap runs best when the temperature is below freezing at night while the days are sunny and above freezing. Most production facilities are finished with the season around April 1 when the trees begin to bud, so in just a few weeks all the maple syrup for the entire year is harvested. Maple syrup is produced only in the northeastern United States and Canada.

A popular myth tells the story of an Indian chief who threw his tomahawk into a tree. Soon, his squaw noticed that a water-like substance was oozing out of the tree. Putting a bucket out to catch the “water,” they were delighted with the sweet results when they used the bucket of “water” to boil meat.

However it was discovered that sap from maple trees would boil into syrup, it is clear that the Native American people actively harvested sap and made it into maple syrup. They taught the white settlers this art. Judson Reid of Cornell Cooperative Extension in Yates County quotes Great Possessions, by David Kline, North Point Press, San Francisco, 1990.

“Maple syrup was likely one of the luxuries the white settlers took from the forests. Learning how to make it from the eastern Indians, the pioneers soon made the sweetener a staple in their homes. The Indians taught them how to gather the sap in bark buckets using alder or elderberry branches for spouts. The collected sap was then put into wooden troughs and hot stones were dropped in until the water evaporated leaving syrup.”

Technology has changed greatly, but the end result is much the same and we still love this luxury from the forests.

From the taps in the trees, the sap is taken to an evaporator to be boiled down into syrup. It is here that the magic of the sugar house happens, where the watery, nearly tasteless sap becomes thick, delicious maple syrup.

Traditionally, buckets were hung on trees to collect the sap. Some producers still use the bucket method, but it is extremely labor intensive. A more popular modern system is a network of plastic tubes strung amongst the trees. This makes it far easier to get the sap to the evaporator, where it is then boiled down and made into syrup.

Evaporator technology also continues to evolve, and some producers use a sophisticated method of reverse osmosis to remove much of the water from the sap even before it is boiled.

Malcolm MacKenzie of Italy Valley, a teacher at Marcus Whitman High School, teaches a maple sugaring unit to the 6th and 7th graders enrolled in his Eco education program based at Cumming Nature Center. “Maple sugar production is an excellent model of technical innovation. It provides an insight into how technology has changed in a relatively short period of time, and due to these changes, the quality and quantity of product is steadily improved.”

MacKenzie’s students host their families at an annual pancake supper in March; they also sell some of the 65 gallons they produce at a small roadside stand.

Dave Schiek is a teacher, too, and maple syrup is what he calls his “out-of-control hobby.” Schiek is a high school technology teacher at Penn Yan Academy by trade. Schiek and his family have been maple sugaring for 75 years and his facility produces about 675 gallons of maple syrup annually. He owns some land, leases additional trees, and even buys some sap from other producers who harvest more than they can use.

Schiek sells his maple products throughout the year at several different farmers’ markets, including the Public Market in Rochester, the Regional Market in Syracuse, and the Farmer’s Market in Geneva.

“I enjoy talking with the people who are return customers. Some of them have fond memories of their own families making maple syrup and others are new to the product,” Schiek said. “The customers make it fun. I also really like the other people in this industry. We are very open about sharing our methods, and we all work together to help each other out. There is real teamwork and cooperation.”
For example, Schiek does not sell his products at the Windmill in Penn Yan because his colleague, Lane Clute, markets maple syrup and other maple food products there.

Clute lives outside of Naples, on property that has been in his family for generations. He and his wife travel to many local markets and festivals to sell maple syrup and other homemade products such as maple cream, maple barbecue sauce, maple mustard, and maple-covered peanuts.

He enjoys the opportunity to be very creative and entrepreneurial. “This business covers the whole range, from maintenance of the woods to the paperwork for taxes to navigating the regulations required to sell food products in New York State,” he said.

Clute produces about 1,000 gallons of maple syrup every year. With 2,500 taps and 300 acres of woods total, he is one of the largest producers of maple syrup in the Finger Lakes area. Clute is also a dealer of equipment used in maple syrup production. While his customers run the entire gamut, many of them are small backyard producers who make just enough syrup for their own personal consumption.

He explained that in the local area, maple trees tend to cluster together in small pockets, making maple syrup production in the Finger Lakes more labor-intensive than areas such as western New York, where the maple trees grow together in huge stands.

Sugar Bush Hollow, Winship’s farm and sugar bush, is located in one of these Finger Lakes pockets of maples. His 220-acre farm is on the south end of a lake and has 110 acres of maple trees. The north and south ends of the Finger Lakes are where sugar maples dominate, as those areas have more rainfall. Maple trees prefer a cool and moist atmosphere.

After his retirement from Xerox, Winship earned a degree in Natural Resources from Cornell University. His master’s thesis was a business plan for a maple syrup production facility. After his graduation in 1999, Winship began searching for the perfect farm to buy. He wanted to locate it on the winery trails, which line the banks along the centers of the Finger Lakes, but he simply could not find a spot with enough maple trees to make the venture practical.

“The sides of the Finger Lakes are dryer and more moderate, which makes it ideal for growing grapes and making wine,” Winship said. “However, the dryer climate is not a good one for the effective growth of maple trees. Maple trees like the south and north ends of the lakes.”

Because of this local geological quirk, maple syrup producers are located in small pockets and scattered throughout the hills of the Finger Lakes. You may have to search to find them, but the search is worth it. When you find them, you will also find some of the most beautiful rural locations in the Finger Lakes. And, you will have the opportunity to talk to people who love what they do. Seek them out, and be part of the fun of spring maple syrup season in the Finger Lakes.
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Maple Weekend
Fresh maple syrup drizzled over flapjacks hot off the grill. Maple cream on toast, maple candy, maple mustard, maple barbecue sauce, maple walnut topping over ice cream. These delicious products are available all year, but they will be highlighted during Maple Weekend 2003.

Maple Weekend is an opportunity to sample these products, to see exactly how they are produced, and to meet and talk face to face with the people who make them. Maple Weekend is a chance to be part of the springtime fun of Finger Lakes maple syrup.

New York State Maple Weekend 2003 will be Saturday, March 22, and Sunday, March 23. Free of charge, this is a family-oriented event that offers something for every generation. For some, the pancake breakfasts are the highlight. Others will enjoy walking outdoors to see the tapped maple trees, remembering when they were children and their families made maple syrup. Those interested in machinery can explore the huge variety of equipment and techniques used by maple producers. Everyone enjoys touring the warm, steamy, fragrant sugar houses where the thin, watery sap taken from the maple trees is boiled down into thick, sweet maple syrup.

Lyle Merle used to be a farmer; now, for the fourth consecutive year, making maple syrup is his full-time job. He loves his job, delighting in his independence, in being outside and working in the woods. He produces and sells about 4,500 gallons of maple syrup a year, and his Wyoming County facility will be open for tours during Maple Weekend so people can come see how it is done.

“I suggest that visitors dress warmly and wear boots. They’ll get the most out of Maple Weekend if they plan to visit several different producers in their local area. It is very interesting to see the variety and differences between producers,” said Merle.

Merle and a small group of other maple producers conceived the idea for a New York Maple Weekend several years ago. They thought it would be a great idea to help educate the public about the high-quality maple syrup made and sold right here in the local area. Understanding the long process of maple production from tree to table makes the experience of eating maple syrup much more meaningful to the consumer.

Over the past several years, the popularity of the concept has grown and evolved, and during Maple Weekend 2003, nearly 70 producers from all across beautiful rural western New York state will open their maple sugar production facilities to the public. Visitors can expect wagon rides to the woods, petting zoos with farm animals, crafts, and food samples, in addition to tours of the maple sugar houses.

Non-profit groups interested in fundraisers are part of the event. Organ­izations such as fire departments work together with maple producers to sponsor pancake breakfasts. There is even a New York State Maple Queen contest. Maple Weekend is truly a cooperative effort between producers throughout the area and has been recognized and supported by the federal Department of Agriculture and Markets as part of the Pride of New York program.

Maple syrup producers throughout all 14 counties of the Finger Lakes are participating in Maple Weekend. There are television, newspaper and radio promotions, but the easiest way to find out more about Maple Weekend is the official website, at MapleWeekend.com.

The website has additional information about maple syrup history and production, recipes, and a list of farms and production facilities that will be open March 22 and March 23.  A link to a map tells visitors exactly how to find the maple syrup producers in their local area. This is great progress from the first Maple Weekend eight years ago, when Merle and a few other maple producers made copies of flyers themselves and pinned them up in local gas stations and grocery stores.

Even as it has grown so that more people in the Finger Lakes area can participate in and enjoy the spring maple syrup experience, the grassroots nature of Maple Weekend has endured. Merle is head of the Western New York Maple Producers group, but he emphasized that it is teamwork that has made Maple Weekend so successful.

These maple syrup producers are people who love their work and get joy from sharing its results with others. These are the people visitors will meet during Maple Weekend.

“It is nice to know who is making the food you are eating and to make that personal connection with them,” Merle said. “The products are delicious, but meeting the individual who made them and understanding the whole process makes it much more meaningful.”


by Kristin Curtis
Kristin Curtis is a freelance writer currently working full-time as a specialty sales rep for a pharm­­aceu­tical company. She lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, with her husband Tim Jones and their dog. They grew up in the Finger Lakes, and their parents still reside in the area.