BOILING AWAY — Marty and Nick Wendel took a break from sugaring to pose beside their new evaporator in the sugar shack that will debut during Maple Weekend. Photos by Lizz Schumer.
While many Western New Yorkers rejoiced at warmer temperatures, earlier this month, maple syrup producers watched the mercury, to see whether 2013 would be a profitable year for the first crop of the season.
Maple trees can be tapped for flowing sap when the weather freezes at night and warms up during the day, to approximately 38 – 45 degrees. The sugar season lasts until the trees bud, at which time the sap turns bitter, ending the run. This weekend and next, local maple fans will have a chance to catch the fresh syrup at Maple Weekend, a statewide event during, which a host of area maple producers will open their sugar shanties to visitors.
This year marks Maple Weekend’s 18th year. March 16 – 17 and March 23 – 24, from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. each day, more than 130 members of the New York State Maple Association across the state will open their sugarhouse doors to the public.
JUST WARMING UP — Nick Wendel checks the temperature of the evaporator. Maple syrup boils at 7 degrees warmer than water.
Locally, maple sugar producers include Benz’s Sugar Shanty & Maple Products in East Concord, Weber’s Maple in West Falls and Wendel’s Poultry in East Concord.
Helen Thomas, executive director of the NYSMA said that Maple Weekend began in 1995, when a group of Wyoming County maple producers decided to educate people about where and how maple products are made.
READY TO ROLL — Dean Weber. pictured with his evaporator, purchased a new reverse osmosis machine (not pictured) to increase the yield of his sugar trees. Photos by Lizz Schumer.
“They felt strongly that it’s important for people to know where their food comes from, and maple syrup-making is a fun agricultural activity that’s been going on ever since the settlers first arrived in this country, and the Indians were doing it, before that,” she explained. “People should know and the only way to do that is to get them out into the woods, out into the sugar shacks, to see how the process works.”
Thomas said that the event has grown since its inception and now features 135 producers, statewide. Although maple production is weather-dependent, she said that the education of the public is equally important for the success of the industry.
“I’m continually amazed by how many people do not understand that maple syrup is made from the sap of the trees and that it has only that one ingredient, as opposed to the artificial syrup that’s made in a chemical factory,” she said. “Many people, nowadays, are three or four generations removed from being in the country and seeing where food comes from, as opposed to just heading to the grocery store.”
TASTY TREATS — A variety of maple products will be available at each location. Pictured, above: a selection of Wendels’ wares.
Thomas added that the maple industry is “working really hard” to encourage consumers to check the label on maple-flavored products, to see if real, natural maple syrup is included.
“[For] a lot of these products, maple sap has never darkened their door,” she noted. “It’s all about marketing and education.”
Marty Wendel of Wendel’s Poultry Farm in East Concord said that last year’s unusual weather patterns, including some days in the 80s in early March, led to a shorter season in 2012. The NYSMA reported that maple syrup production was down 54 percent from the 2011 production values, with 360,000 gallons of maple syrup produced in 2012. In the United States as a whole, maple syrup production totaled 1.91 million gallons, down 32 percent from 2011.
BLOWING OFF STEAM — An evaporator like this Leader variety at Wendel’s, can boil up to 600 gallons of sap, per hour.
“It’s the shortest growing season,” Wendel said. “A lot of guys, including me, will put out more [sap-collecting] buckets each season, just in case the weather turns. Everyone’s trying to do more than their machinery can handle, because you never know when you’ll get one of those warm snaps, and then it’ll be mothballs for [the equipment for] the next 48, 50 weeks of the year.”
Greg Zimpfer, chairman of Maple Weekend, said that sap production has slowed down over time, but he considers it “still on an upward trend, in growth.” He added that this year, sap production is still “somewhat behind where it should be,” because temperatures have been marginal.
Dean Weber of West Falls said that he thinks sap production is about 25 – 40 percent along, at his maple production operation.
“The weather has been a little chillier than normal,” he said. “Last year it was a little warmer than usual, so it’s always very weather-dependent. But we’re expecting to get a few gallons out, this weekend.”
According to NYSMA, syrup production methods have varied widely since its creation by Native Americans before Europeans arrived on the continent, although no official report exists as to when or how the practice first began. Historical accounts show that Europeans were involved in maple sugaring as early as the 1600s, with processed syrup’s being used as a primary source of sweetener in the northeastern United States, throughout the seventh and 18th centuries. Although evaporation techniques, sterilization and technology have changed widely since earlier production, and still vary between producers in the modern day, the basic process remains the same.
It takes approximately 43 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup. Sap becomes syrup, when the sugar concentration reaches about 67 percent. Syrup is classified by grade, with different grades determined by color and strength of flavor. The taste and quality of maple syrup depends on many variables, including soil, climate, weather, the health of the trees, when the sap is collected and the sugar maker’s processing technique. Some producers in every region are able to consistently produce light-color, high-quality products.
Production methods, types of products offered and events vary by location, so representatives from the NYSMA recommended that visitors make a day of it, at several different locales.
Benz’s Sugar Shanty & Maple products is located at 12939 Van Slyke Road in East Concord. The business, operated by Donald Benz III and Larry Heim, will have an open house, tours of the shanty, free samples and between 25 and 30 products for sale, including maple hot dogs, milk shakes, cheese, pie, popcorn, cream, mustard, jelly and more.
Benz and Heim also collect vintage sugar equipment, which will be on display for the public to view.
At Wendel’s Poultry Farm, which can be found at 12502 Vaughn St. in East Concord, a new sugar shanty will make its debut, during Maple Weekend, after a shell constructed by House of Steel first went up, in June of 2011.
“It’s been a long process and we’re always looking to improve. Not grow, because I think we’re where we want to be, but to streamline and improve our operation,” said Wendel, who plans to install a museum and overlook deck in his new facility.
Wendel has been making maple syrup for the past 45 years, an operation that started in his mother’s kitchen, when he was 10 years old.
“I needed money for a new dirt bike,” he said, “and I’ve always been one of those people who can find a hard way to do something.”
The new facility features an evaporator that can boil 600 gallons of sap per hour from the 4,500 trees Wendel taps in his operation. The evaporator was constructed by Leader, a company for which his son Nick distributes equipment. The Wendel complex also features a storeroom, from which interested customers can purchase supplies to make their own maple syrup at home.
As part of Maple Weekend, both that store and the sugar shanty will be open for business, with both Wendels’ showing visitors how maple products are made, as well as debuting the new facility.
“It’s been a long time and a lot of work,” Nick Wendel said. “A lot of times, we’d go out to work in the morning and wouldn’t even step foot in the house until 9:30 or 10 at night, after we worked on this building. We’re excited to show it off.”
Weber’s Maple, located at 1241 Davis Road in West Falls will also be open for business, with several auxiliary activities on offer. The evaporator will be running, and Weber said there will also be samples of his wares, homemade pastries, a kids’ craft corner and a blacksmith demonstration. During the first two days of Maple Weekend, the Western New York branch of the Siberian Husky Club will be on hand to give demonstrations.
This year, Weber has added a reverse osmosis machine, which allows him to evaporate 1,100 gallons per hour, instead of the 650 his evaporator had been able to undertake, alone.
From Benz’s Sugar Shanty, which has been inviting visitors to the facility for the past several years, to Wendel’s Poultry, which will open its doors for the first time this year, the sap will be flowing during Maple Weekend in Western New York.
“It’s something I really enjoy learning about, and I think it’s all about education,” Marty Wendel said. “We want to get people out here to see what we do and learn something, too.”
More information about Maple Weekend, including locations and hours, can be found at www.mapleweekend.com.