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Spring Series: Maple Sugaring Business Born From A Family Hobby

Lucas Willard
Erica and Chris Welch

Spring in the Northeast means maple sugaring season. For a few precious weeks every year, in between the coldest days of winter and the warm days of spring, when days grow longer and nights remain freezing, sap flows from maple trees.

In the last installment of WAMC’s spring series, we head to a maple farm in Schenectady County.

On a cold, sunny morning in mid-March, a ceremonial tap is hammered into a maple tree outside Riverside Maple Farms in the town of Glenville to mark the start of maple sugaring season.

The old-fashioned tap-and-bucket method is the first step in collecting sap to make maple syrup.

Riverside Maple Farms co-owner Chris Welch began making syrup this way 30 years ago when he was a kid. 

“So my father and I and my sister and my mother would tap about 50 trees with buckets, we would go into the woods in early to mid-February and we would drill holes in the trees and put buckets on the trees and collect the sap. My friends would come in the woods and we would have a good time. And we carry all the sap out, we bring it down to my father's house and we'd boil it in a stove in the driveway under a Heineken umbrella.”

After Chris met his wife, Erica, they’d ask their family for their homemade syrup.

“We would go to my mother in August and say, ‘Hey, do you have a jar of syrup we can take to our friends or Erica said she never had any syrup because my mother never had any,” says Chris. “We always ran out. So we said, ‘Well, we should start tapping some more trees and started tapping some more trees, and we still didn't have enough...”

“And your dad always says "I really liked tapping trees and collecting buckets’ and what led to this. And I said, ‘No, I didn't like collecting buckets, that's what led to this,’” says Erica.

The Welches opened their maple farm to the public last October.

As Chris takes guests on a tour of the property, Erica shows how they collect the sap to make the syrup.

The Welches avoid collecting buckets by stringing blue plastic tubing from tree-to-tree.

“We have, on this property, this line runs a mile and a half back and it collects the sap off of a thousand different trees,” says Erica.

“All sugar maples?”

“Variety of maples. We have sugar maples, we have red maples. We even have a few Norway maples that we tap,” says Erica.

The sap flows through the tubes down the hill where it is collected. But Riverside Maple Farms is state-of-the-art. The sap gets an assist.

“…So this is our vacuum pump and releaser system. The idea behind the vacuum pump is that it’s going to help to extract more sap than what we would get than if we were simply collecting from a bucket that was just dripping in,” explains Erica.

Then, the collected sap is run through a reverse osmosis machine, or RO, as Erica calls it.

“Running it through the RO system we will take about as much as 80 percent of the water out of the sap before we boil it,” says Erica.

That saves a lot of time during the boiling process. It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup. And it takes a scientific approach.

“There’s science, there’s math, there’s technology and it’s things that we have learned through not only doing this ourselves over the years but also through the knowledge that we’ve learned working with producers through the New York State Maple Producers Association,” says Erica.

The Maple Producers Association sponsors Maple Weekend, which this year was held in the last two weekends in March. About 180 maple farms and museums across the state opened their doors for visitors to have a taste of the liquid gold. The maple business has a $141 million impact in New York.

Maple sugaring is not the only job that Chris and Erica have. They also work in IT.

Reflecting on how Riverside Maple Farms came to be, Chris says it was just the natural progression of a hobby started decades ago.

“I always wanted to make syrup, I don't think I wanted to do it on this scale and then it just sort of became this,” says Chris.

“But I think for us what drove this was as we would have friends and particularly out of town friends come in during the winter, we'd invite them to come into the woods. We'd invite them to come down and watch us boil. And watching how excited people were, watching their eyes get huge as they came out and tapped a tree, like we saw earlier today, or watching them light up when they smell the syrup boiling in the driveway on a snowy winter's day and just asking so many questions and getting so excited. That's what really energized us and said ‘we love making syrup but we love sharing it more.’ And that's what led us to do what we've done because it's back to community. We want to share that and we love seeing the excitement on people's faces when they come in and get to experience this first-hand,” says Erica.

But the real question is, do they ever get sick of so much syrup?

“I haven’t. I just had some a little bit ago…” says Chris.

Erica says she eats syrup with ‘everything.’

“Mostly on everything except pancakes,” says Erica.



Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.
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