What do you get when you combine Vermont's most famous agricultural product (maple syrup) with the state's number one economic driver (tourism)? Sugarbush Farm. This multigenerational farm in Woodstock, Vt., has carved out a niche by opening its doors, and its sugarhouse, to the public. Betsy and Larry Luce, along with their sons, Ralph and Jeff, and their families all call Sugarbush Farm home.
The 550-acre hillside farm was started by Betsy's parents in the 1940s, and while the land remains largely the same, the farming enterprise has changed dramatically over that time. Once primarily a dairy operation, the farm now specializes in maple syrup and tourism.
Ralph Luce gives a group of visitors a first-hand look at how maple syrup is produced. Even during the off-season the Sugarbush Farm sugarhouse serves as an educational center with a video and other displays to show visitors how maple syrup is made.
Sugarbush Farm (www.sugarbushfarm.com) started making maple syrup about 40 years ago. It moved toward a model of marketing and selling on the farm around 25 years ago. "It was after we joined Vermont Attractions [a state-managed organization that offers road map/visitors' guides to various tourist attractions] that our numbers doubled, and they continue to grow," says Betsy.
The farm's store is now located in the old farmhouse and the sugarhouse sits next door. For the majority of the year, when they are not boiling, the Luce family turns the sugarhouse into an educational center to teach visitors about tapping trees and the process of making maple syrup. "We have a video and a lot of displays," Luce explains. "We get thousands of people a year."
A lot of effort is put into marketing Sugarbush Farm. The farm has a website with an online store, as well as a healthy following (1,322 "likes" and counting) on Facebook. The goal is to attract visitors and orders from far and wide. In the spring and summer, those visitors tend to be families from the Northeast on weekend vacations; in the fall they come from all around the U.S. and the world. "Probably 10 percent of our visitors in the fall are international," Luce states. In addition to teaching them about sugar making, the farm also provides samples of the various grades of syrup.
The store (selling not only syrup but cheese smoked on the farm as well as other Vermont-made products) and sugarhouse at Sugarbush Farm are open year-round, which Luce says is a big, but necessary, commitment. She acknowledges that providing this level of accessibility to the public isn't for all sugar makers: "If you're going to sell all of your production in drums, a tourist is really just an interruption. But here it's supporting our entire family and seven or eight other workers, so we need it!"
Most years Sugarbush Farm is able to supply all of the syrup its customers demand; every so often, if supplies run low, it might need to purchase a barrel or two of a certain grade from neighboring farms, says Betsy. She estimates that about 50 percent of the syrup - 1,800 gallons in 2011 - that the farm makes is sold on-site. Much of the rest is sold through the website and the farm's catalog, and a lot of those buyers visited Sugarbush Farm in the past and have become repeat customs, Luce points out. "People who have visited here have a very close connection to us," she says.
Never was that more obvious than late in 2011 after Tropical Storm Irene put Vermont in the national news. "We started getting all of these calls and emails from people who had been here," Luce recalls. The farm sent an email to its 10,000-person email list to let them know that, despite extensive local damage Sugarbush Farm was OK. The message of support from customers near and far during that time was clear. "We got more orders than we ever have," she says.
Sugarbush Farm collects emails from as many visitors and customers as possible and uses Constant Contact to manage communications with customers. Luce says that system works well and makes it easy to send regular emails to thousands of recipients.
While marketing and sales are important, so is syrup production. With that in mind, Sugarbush Farm has continually improved and expanded its sugaring operation. Ralph Luce says the farm is currently operating with 7,000 taps all on tubing, save for 13 buckets hung near the sugarhouse for nostalgic and educational purposes. Not long ago there were 2,300 buckets, but collecting the sap was too much for the family to keep up with.
About 2,000 new taps have been added over the last five years. "Every year we try to get about 500 new taps out," says Ralph. To keep up with the additional sap, Sugarbush Farm invested in a new wood-fired Leader evaporator in the sugarhouse. "The old one was 16 years old, so it was time," he says.
The new model is 5 feet wide and 14 feet long, 2 feet shorter than the old unit. While slightly smaller, the new model is substantially more efficient, Ralph explains: "The flue pan is totally different, so it actually has more boiling surface. We're boiling 800 gallons of water off per hour, versus 700 gallons per hour with the old one. We also bought a new 'enhanced model' Steam Away for the top of the flue pan. The whole thing was a lot of money, but everything is more efficient."
Ralph jokes that when the farm built its new sugarhouse 25 years ago it had one of its worst seasons ever, so he wasn't surprised that after making a sizable investment in the new evaporator last fall, 2012 proved to be a down year. Even with the farm at 75 percent of its normal production he says the new equipment proved its worth. "It worked beautifully," he says.
In a normal year, Sugarbush Farm usually starts tapping around Valentine's Day, says Ralph (though it was a good 10 days earlier this year). The farm uses a two-piece spout, with the tip that goes into the tree being replaced every year. "They're about 19 cents apiece, but you have no bacteria on that spout, so it's a lot healthier for the tree. When we drill the new hole for the tree, we just take a new spout [tip] out of the bag and put it right into the tree."
Sugarbush Farm just added a new Leader evaporator. The new unit offers improved efficiency over the 16-year-old model it replaced. "It worked beautifully," says Ralph Luce of the new unit.
The farm tries to replace a section of tubing each season. "The new line is so far improved compared to the old line, but if I was to do it all at once it would probably cost us $100,000. So we just go in and try to improve one section at a time," says Ralph. The new tubing being installed is a combination of Lamb and CDL, both of which work well, he says.
Ralph says he'd like to put in a new reverse osmosis (RO) system, but that would be a budget-buster. "Right now we have one that's capable of 700 gallons an hour of processing, so that means we have to start 12 hours in advance to have enough to boil. If I could buy one that would process 1,500 gallons of liquid an hour, I could actually process sap while I was boiling." Having 1,000 gallons of boilable sap that's gone through the RO system would help make the boiling process more time-efficient, Ralph explains. Between the improved efficiency offered by the RO system and the new evaporator, and the need to boil during the day when visitors are around to see the process, boiling now takes place largely in two or three-hour bursts. Gone are the days of boiling long into the night, he notes.
Sugarbush Farm welcomes thousands of visitors every year. Many of them remain customers to the farm long after they leave.
At the end of the season, Sugarbush Farm uses an Air Blow system to flush out its lines while unspouting the trees. "It's sort of like a giant power washer and air compressor, and we blow water and air back up our main lines," Ralph explains. "That takes us about a week and a half with 7,000 trees to do." After winding down from the sugaring season, attention turns to the farm's 100 head of Angus cattle, along with growing corn and hay.
While there's no day-to-day work to do in the sugar bush the majority of the year, Sugarbush Farm remains maple-focused because it continues to welcome visitors year-round who want to know all about this sweet product.
Patrick White is a freelance writer based in Middlesex, Vt. Over the past 10 years, he has covered a wide range of agricultural operations around the Northeast. He is always on the lookout for unusual stories.