Merle Maple Farm

By Katie Navarra

The Merle Maple Farm breakfast gift basket.
Photos courtesy of Merle Maple Farm.

The maple industry is unique in that syrup can be produced by an individual tapping one tree in their backyard and boiling sap on the kitchen stove or by large-scale producers who earn a living making liquid gold. For Lyle and Dottie Merle, owners of Merle Maple Farm in Attica, N.Y., producing maple syrup products provides a full-time income and honors a long-standing family tradition.

Lyle's great-grandfather, John, established the original family farm in the 1870s after immigrating to the U.S. from France. During the Depression years, the family lost the original farm and relocated a mile down the road to the current location. "We're now in the valley, which is great for me since we rely on gravity to move the sap," Lyle said. "This location is better land, a better farm, and it created a better opportunity for my father [Arthur Jr.], my brothers and me."

The original farm relied on dairy cows, laying hens and maple syrup production. "My brothers always had the interest in animals. One went to Alfred for poultry, and the other was interested in dairy," Lyle explained. "I never seemed to like the animals; I never got excited about having to deal with the animals. I liked the field crops, the equipment and the maple."

In 1999, when Lyle and his brothers dissolved the partnership, Lyle and Dottie became sole owners of the maple end of the business, his brother Bruce assumed ownership of the dairy operation, which now specializes in replacement heifers, and his brother Milton became the owner of the poultry business.

Lyle Merle designed this machine, which is used in the drying process when making crystal-coated maple pieces.

Merle Maple Farm sprawls across 300 acres and has continued to build upon the firm roots established by earlier generations of the Merle family. "We had a good customer base to begin with that Lyle inherited from his dad," Dottie said. Now they are placing 14,000 taps a year. "That is pretty much one tap per tree with the new recommendations, technology and approaches," Lyle said. Annual production ranges between 5,500 gallons (2012) and 7,100 gallons (2011), depending on the weather.

"We are getting a half-gallon of sap per tap pretty regular," he said. The key: clean spouts and clean drip lines. Lyle discovered early on that the bacteria were staying in the spouts from one year to the next. The bacteria were encouraging the trees to seal off the tapholes, limiting the amount of sap collected. Instead of using plastic taps with check valves, as many producers do, he chose stainless steel taps that are washed in Clorox at the end of every season.

Stainless steel taps also eliminate the need to use check valves. In combination, the stainless steel taps have increased his sap yield and saved on expenses by eliminating the annual or biannual expense of replacing check valves at approximately 40 cents each. Multiplied by 14,000 taps, that's a savings of $5,600. "Not many people are doing this yet, but the yield is equal to any other system, and in the long term it is more sustainable," he said.

Once all the sap is collected, it is filtered through a reverse osmosis machine and boiled off on a 1965 5-by-14-foot evaporator. In the 1990s, Lyle purchased a Steam-Away system that was added to the evaporator. Prior to adding the Steam-Away and reverse osmosis equipment, Lyle produced 3 gallons of syrup per hour. The upgraded equipment has increased productivity to around 65 gallons of syrup per hour. "The Steam-Away reuses heat off the flue pan and increases the efficiency by 35 to 40 percent," he noted.

Marketing is key

Even though Lyle and Dottie inherited a strong business from Arthur Jr., the duo recognizes the importance of marketing in today's economy. "We are marketing way more than we did in the past," Dottie said.

Horse-drawn wagon rides are a popular activity at Merle Maple Farm during the annual Maple Weekend event.

To develop a competitive edge, the Merles are always working on developing new products. Visitors can purchase granulated maple sugar pieces, hot and sweet maple mustard, maple apple butter, maple barbecue sauce, hot and sweet pepper jelly made with maple, maple spread, and a cinnamon and raspberry maple spread. They have even experimented with maple popcorn, maple soda and maple iced tea.

Excellent customer service has also been an important aspect of Merle Maple Farm's marketing strategy. The farm's syrup is sold wholesale to specialty stores and farmstands. "We find the service we give those people helps us," Lyle said. "Especially before Christmas, we turn around orders pretty good. Some farmstands that we have picked up commented that before using our products, they were waiting a month or more for orders." Dottie added that they're as busy from August 1 through Christmas as during the actual production season, and sometimes even busier.

Staying on the cutting edge of technology has also played an integral role in the business. "My father was always innovative; I inherited that from him," Lyle said. He's even designed equipment to improve efficiency. One machine in particular is used in the drying process when making crystal-coated maple pieces.

During Maple Weekend, children can learn how to tap a tree for sap.

When the maple pieces are made, the candy is put in a bath of syrup and allowed to soak overnight at 100 degrees. "We used to have eight ladies come in to dry off each maple piece. They could dry off 150 pounds in three hours. With Lyle's machine, we have seven ladies able to dry off 225 pounds in three hours," Dottie explained.

Hosting annual Maple Weekend festivities has also been a key marketing element. Educational demonstrations, horse-drawn rides through the sugar bush and interactive activities, including an air cannon, provide entertainment for visitors of all ages.

"We see it as entertainment agriculture. We have hosted Maple Weekend for 17 years, and I always said, 'How long will people come to see sap boil off an evaporator?'" Lyle commented. "We recognized early on that to keep visitors returning every year, we had to always have new activities and products every year." Their hard work has paid off. The Maple Weekend festivities draw between 5,000 and 6,000 visitors annually. "We have people that have come around and told us they have been here every year!" they said. Hosting Maple Weekend is also an opportunity for the Merles to give back to the community. "We have a nonprofit come in to help with selling the food, and they get to keep the profits on the food," Dottie said.

In 2010, Lyle and Dottie were jointly honored by the Department of Agriculture and Markets with the Hubbell Award for showing leadership in New York state.

A lasting legacy

Commitment to the maple industry has earned the Merle family countless awards. In 1988, Arthur Jr. was inducted into the Maple Hall of Fame in the American Maple Museum. He also received the Hubbell Award in 1994. Lyle's mother, Florence, was also presented the Hubbell award in 1998.

Lyle's 98-year-old mother, Florence Merle, looks forward to serving syrup samples during Maple Weekend every year.

Since Arthur Jr.'s passing in 1995, Lyle has carried on his legacy and commitment to the maple industry. Lyle was named Producer of the Year in 2007 by the New York Farm Viability Institute for his innovative thinking, hands-on development of new processes, practical application and a willingness to share his work with the rest of the agricultural industry.

In 2010, Lyle and Dottie were jointly honored with the Hubbell Award by the Department of Agriculture and Markets for showing leadership in New York state. Both are active members of the New York State Maple Producers Association - Dottie is the secretary, and Lyle is chairman of the Maple Center, now a permanent booth built into the Horticulture Building at the New York State Fairgrounds in Syracuse.

Florence remains active in the business. At 98 years old, she continues to enthusiastically greet customers at the annual Maple Weekend events.

Lyle Merle frequently checks the tubing in the sugar bush to make sure snow and critters haven't knocked down the main lines.

Katie Navarra is a freelance contributor based in Clifton Park, N.Y., and writes about agriculture and the equine industry regularly.