This sugaring season at Maple Valley Farm in Corinth, N.Y., marks two milestones for owners Donald and Susan Monica: the farm celebrates its 50th year in business, and the initiation of 12-year-old Abby Monica, the sixth-generation family member to participate in the business. Donald said, "Abby has an interest in making syrup; we've been talking about refinishing an old-fashioned evaporator for her to make a go at it."
The family's passion for producing maple syrup started with Donald's great-grandfather, Cheri Shnob, who lived in Gannon's Corners, a town 3 miles from the Canada/New York border. Cheri's son, Edmond, learned the trade as soon as he was old enough and eventually passed along his knowledge to his daughter, Mary Jane (Shnob) Monica, Donald's mother. "When I was 10 or 11 years old, my grandfather told me it was time to learn," Donald reminisced.
Vacuum lines are set up in preparation for the 2012 maple season.
Eager to start his own maple producing enterprise, Donald officially began producing syrup in 1962. For the first few years, he used no more than 10 to 15 taps. Over the years, his wife and their sons, Scott, Tim and Andy, played an important role in helping Donald expand the business. "Well into the mid-1980s we were using 900 buckets to gather sap," Susan said. Today, the Monicas place 2,000 taps on approximately 90 acres of land.
Buckets still hang from the trees along the road indicating the start of maple season, but vacuum lines strung among 1,200 to 1,300 trees direct the flow of sap from trees to one of several collection tanks. Beginning in early February, Donald, Scott and Tim prepare all of the lines so when the time is right they can begin tapping. "We want to be early enough to catch the first sap, which is highest in sugar content and is the nice amber color syrup," he said.
It takes Donald, Scott and Tim three or four days to place all of the taps. Throughout the month of March and sometimes into early April they make daily trips to each tank to bring the sap back to the sugarhouse for boiling. "We boil daily during mapling season; we don't let the sap sit in the tank," Donald said.
Sap is boiled using a 6-by-18-foot, stainless steel, wood-fired evaporator. Donald said, "Depending on the guy firing, if he's fast enough, we can boil approximately 400 gallons an hour." Last year, Maple Valley Farm gathered 16,000 gallons of sap and produced slightly less than 400 gallons of syrup. "It is hard to tell what we will get this year because the weather has been so mild," Donald noted.
Donald Monica explains that 2011 was a good season for producing maple syrup.
Despite the mild winter weather, Donald is upbeat about the season and eagerly awaits the farm's annual open house scheduled for March 24 and 25. "It is part of the New York State Maple Producer's annual maple weekend," he explained.
Maple Weekend at Maple Valley Farm includes a Boy Scouts Campout, a Confederate Encampment and the Adirondack Mountain Men. Participants in the Confederate Encampment and the Adirondack Mountain Men dress in authentic clothing, cook outside on an open fire and sleep in hand-hewn tents. "One year it was 10 below and they still slept on hay on the ground," he said.
The Adirondack Mountain Men provide demonstrations on hatchet throwing, flint knapping, fire starting and cooking meals from wild game. A Confederate era blacksmith displays antique muskets and makes small kitchen utensils.
Samples of each batch of syrup produced by Maple Valley Farm in 2011.
The Monicas anticipate 900 to 1,000 people for this year's Maple Weekend. While a busy opening weekend contributes to sales and establishes loyal customers, it only accounts for a small portion of the farm's annual sales. "Ninety percent of our syrup is sold off the farm," Donald explained. "We have shipped our syrup to Florida, Colorado, Arizona, Texas, New Jersey, Virginia, Japan and Germany.
"The biggest challenge we have is selling the syrup, even though there are less producers now than there were 50 years ago, not as many people stop into the farm to buy the syrup," he adds. Local retail businesses, including a locally owned bakeshop and general store, purchase Maple Valley's syrup for resale in their shops.
Susan and Donald Monica inside the kitchen attached to the sugarhouse where the syrup, maple cream and maple candy are produced.
"Three magazines have highlighted maple in their March 2012 issues; it all helps with the marketing," Susan said. The Monicas encourage their customers to assist with marketing. "When people go into a restaurant we tell them to ask for pure/real maple syrup or to bring their own jug,." Susan and Donald agreed that if everyone did that, it would be a nice boost in marketing.
Though it takes time and finances to expand, there are a lot of maple trees available in the area providing an opportunity for growth. "We are transplanting all the time," Donald said. The Monicas are considering purchasing additional land to increase production. "We hesitate to tap other people's trees because of the investment costs in equipment," Susan explained. "We had an agreement with a local farm one time, and without telling us, they cleared all the maple trees taking our lines and equipment with [the trees]."
The Monicas have made agreements with a handful of property owners, and the benefits are mutual if the landowner has more than 7 acres that can be tapped. "If we can put in 200 to 300 taps on an individual's property, the landowner can apply for an agricultural assessment that could lower their taxes by up to one-third," he explained.
Donald Monica holds a wooden bucket that was once used to collect sap before the process was modernized.
For Donald, producing maple syrup is a hobby he is passionate about, but one he does not make a full-time living doing. For almost 35 years he worked at the Corinth School District as the fleet supervisor/transportation. "Scott and Tim have calculated that if we increase to 3,000 to 5,000 taps we would be profitable. If we increase to 8,000 to 10,000, it would produce enough income for them to work here full time."
During sugaring season Donald welcomes neighbors and passersby: "If they see the steam coming out of the sugarhouse, come on down, sit a spell and watch what we do."
Katie Navarra is a freelance contributor based in Clifton Park, N.Y., and writes about agriculture and the equine industry regularly.