Ralph Gardner Jr: Making Maple Syrup | WAMC

Ralph Gardner Jr: Making Maple Syrup

Apr 1, 2017

Ben Madey at his maple sugar house in Ghent, NY
Credit Ralph Gardner, JR

This wasn’t a good winter for maple syrup production. At least at our house.

We have one tap. My wife bought it at our local hardware store. It’s still sitting in the plastic bag.

We have lots of woods. But the first challenge is determining which of our trees are sugar maples and which aren’t.

We went to Tractor Supply in Hudson, New York prepared to invest in a bucket but then thought better of it.

I like maple syrup. Probably nothing goes better on pancakes and waffles. I’ve never liked maple sugar candy, however. Can’t really tell you why.

But the idea of tapping our own trees was enticing, even though the impression I have is that it’s rather labor intensive. I have this mental image of turning our kitchen into a factory with steaming vats and metal tubing and the volunteer fire department showing up when we blow up the house.

All in the service of reducing forty gallons of sap to one gallon of maple syrup. Or whatever the ratio is.

So before we did anything stupid, such as spending money on equipment, we decided to pay a visit to Ben and Veronica Madey in Ghent, New York.

The Madeys own Maple Leaf Sugaring, a certified organic maple syrup operation and they had an open house last weekend.

Wouldn’t any maple syrup be certified organic by definition? I mean, what can be more organic than tapping a tree.

But I never got around to asking that question. It probably ranked somewhere in the low four hundreds among my questions regarding establishing our own sugaring operation.

I liked Mr. Madey immediately. His day job is as a pilot for Virgin America. I appreciated him because he told us that it’s too late in the season to start tapping our trees. That let us off the hook and allowed us to better enjoy touring his operation.

It’s three years old, its “first boil” in 2015.

Even though it was a cold, rainy early spring day – the sort of day that makes you dream of the Bahamas – the sight of Maple Leaf Sugaring’s attractive sugarhouse, constructed from trees on their own property, and with white smoke billowing from vents in the roof – made you feel as if you were stepping into a Currier and Ives print.

Their property, or at least what we could see of it, had blue tubing running between the trees, their sap somehow ending back in the sugarhouse.

Mr. Madey, who couldn’t have been friendlier when we told him of our own maple syrup dreams, explained how the operation worked. But I lost him at “Hello.”

The strong impression I got as he explained concepts such as pumps and evaporators and reverse osmosis is that it helps to be a transcontinental airline pilot, or at least somebody who understands mechanics, if you want to get into the maple sugaring business.

I don’t. Whenever I manage to hammer a nail in straight I’m ready to declare victory and call it quits for the day.

Mr. Mabey, who grew up locally, said his is the largest maple sugaring operation in Columbia County with a little over 4,000 taps. Those include 1,400 on his own property and the remainder among neighbors who truck their sap over to his gleaming wood-fired evaporator to be processed.

That gave me an idea. Instead of tapping our own trees perhaps the maple syrup magnate would care to pay a visit to our place to see whether it had syrup and money-making potential. He could start by helping us distinguish the sugar maples from all the other maples, not to mention our oaks, willows and evergreens.

Mr. Mabey agreed to drop by at some point and we got into an animated conversation about the economics of maple syrup production. Turns out New York State is the largest producer after Quebec and Vermont.

I wasn’t so crass as to ask whether he turns a profit, though I didn’t get the impression he was planning to turn in his pilot’s wings any time soon. “We all have our hobbies on the side,” he told us. “This became more than a hobby.”

He said that were our woods to pass muster – he’d do any inventory of our tress to see whether they offered a sufficient density of sugar maples – perhaps we’d sign a ten-year lease and get half the syrup to pour over pancakes or sell.

But he said the main attraction to the homeowner is the tax breaks for turning fallow forest into income producing agricultural land. He sited a property owner on Lake Placid, an extreme example Mr. Mabey admitted, who was able to reduce his tax burden from $12,000 annually to less than $2,000 by tapping his trees.

He also assured us that if we didn’t like the sight of bright blue tubing it also came in earth tones, or at least colors that might more effortlessly blend into the landscape.

In the meantime, we purchased a quart of maple syrup and an 8-ounce jar of maple cream. I have a hunch that in the short run, as well as the long run, buying it by the bottle may be the most economically prudent way to go.

Ralph Gardner Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.