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Long-time NY maple producers look to next generation to take over

Ellen Abbott
WRVO Public Media
Michael Spicer with Karl Wiles behind him.

Maple producers are in the midst of their 24th annual Maple Weekend program in New York State. Farms across upstate are opening up sugar shacks so visitors can watch clear sap from a maple tree morph into mouthwatering maple syrup. The industry is growing, but also in the midst of a major transition.

Credit Ellen Abbott
A close-up look at one of the taps.

Ben Benjamin runs a family maple operation on the eastern end of Madison County, producing 1,500 gallons of syrup every year. It’s in his blood.

"My great uncle back in 1870 was the number one maple producer in New York State,” Benjamin said. “He did it all by buckets.”

He’s been tapping trees for 30 years now. But like many other producers, is ready to give up, what this time of year, is an almost 24-hour a day job.

"We’re an example of the old man getting old, and the younger kids taking over, and I hope that’s the case in my family,” Benjamin said.

His family represents a transition that’s taking place in the maple producing industry, according to Keith Schiebel of the New York State Maple Producers Association.

“Because of the age of the industry, we are seeing some significant retirements, but also that resurgence of growth of young people coming into the industry," Schiebel said.

And that’s what makes the maple industry different. Even though the older generation is retiring, business is booming, with the industry producing more than 800,000 gallons of syrup last year, a record in New York State. Some of that can be attributed to better technology, but Scheibel also said maple production is one of the few money making ventures in agriculture these days, replacing less profitable endeavors like dairy farming.

"Some of our bigger maple producers are former dairy farmers that have left the dairy industry and are now exclusive maple producers and making a good living at it.” Scheibel said.

But it’s more than money that’s drawing a younger generation into maple.

Credit Ellen Abbott / WRVO Public Media
WRVO Public Media
Sap flows into tubs at the Cedervale Maple Syrup Company.

Michael Spicer, 20, watches clear sap plunge into stainless steel tubs at the Cedervale Maple Syrup Company in Onondaga County. He’s taken over the operation from Karl Wiles, who ran it for four decades. He got the maple bug in middle school.

"When I was 11, I went on a field trip around here,” Spicer said. “And I said, I can do this, and my mom goes, I can get some buckets. And we started boiling on the stove.”

Along with tapping trees, Spicer is a sophomore at Hamilton College. And as he walked among the maples that are mostly older than he is, he’s not sure whether he will join this maple youth movement.

"Most of the kids I go to school with go to banking in New York City,” Spicer said. “And I’ve looked into that, and trying to network in those areas. And I come out here, and wonder, why would I want to do something like that?”

Which gets to the heart of what he calls, the addiction of maple syrup producing.

“It’s an amazing feeling up in the woods working, and it’s fun to produce a product that consumers will always come back and love,” Spicer said.

Credit Tom Magnarelli / WRVO Public Media
WRVO Public Media
Joe Yardley and his wife Hannah at the Yardley sugar house in Mexico, NY.

At the Yardley sugar house in Mexico, NY, hot maple syrup is drawn out of the wood-fire evaporator. Owner Joe Yardley has been making syrup since he was 10 years old, cutting the tops off milk jugs and hanging them from trees.

“Every year, we just reinvested the maple syrup money and bought more equipment and bought more tubing for the trees,” Yardley said.

Yardley grew up on an organic dairy farm in New Hampshire. He’s 34 now and admits, maple production is very labor intensive, and with old timers dying off or getting out, he said it’s hard to find people that are willing to do this kind of work.

“You have to be out in the woods the worst time of the year, when it’s very, very cold, in deep, deep snow,” Yardley said. “Tapping 3,200 trees, for us. Trucking through miles and miles of pipeline to tap trees.”

Plus, he said, it’s becoming very high tech and expensive. Equipment costs make it prohibitive to get into.

Credit Tom Magnarelli / WRVO Public Media
WRVO Public Media
Besides syrup, the Yardley’s also sell maple candy, cream, almonds, peanuts, popcorn and cotton candy.

“Farms are getting bigger and bigger and bigger, and it’s kind of like you have to be big to survive, or just do it kind of mom-and-pop in your own backyard," Yardley said. "It’s harder to be the middle guy now.”

But Maple Weekend, he said, is one of the best times of the year for their retail sales.

“It’s good for people to see all the work that goes into it," Yardley said. "They see $25 half gallon on the shelf at the store vs. $3 Aunt Jemima syrup. That’s kind of shocking until you come here and see all that goes into producing a gallon of syrup. Then you say, wow, how can they produce it so cheap?”

Compared to the inexpensive stuff, which is mostly just high fructose corn syrup, Yardley’s is nothing other than what comes from a maple tree; pure sap, boiled down into pure maple syrup.

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
Tom Magnarelli is a reporter covering the central New York and Syracuse area. He joined WRVO as a freelance reporter in 2012 while a student at Syracuse University and was hired full time in 2015. He has reported extensively on politics, education, arts and culture and other issues around central New York.