The business of maple syrup

  • Steam comes off the boiler at Ben’s Sugar Shack in Temple during a recent boil of sap. Ben’s is hoping to make more 12,000 gallons of syrup this season after leasing more land for tapping. Staff photo by Tim Goodwin

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 3/17/2020 5:25:32 PM

The unofficial first sign of spring can be found in the steam billowing from sugar houses all over the region.

With maple sugaring season in full swing, producers are working long days and late into the night to boil sap and make an abundance of fresh syrup that locals and visitors alike flock to get their hands on.

This Saturday and Sunday marks the 25th Maple Weekend, where syrup makers typically open their doors for tours, talks and samples to give people a look behind the scenes of what goes into the sweet creation that sits atop your pancakes and waffles. But with concerns about the coronavirus pandemic, the NH Maple Producers Association are leaving the decision to proceed with events up to the individual producers, while working to move away from promoting the weekend as a whole.

A decision was made to hold a weekend in the fall, and while it’s not during boiling season it’s a way to “try and recreate the magic of the weekend,” said Nick Kosko, former president of the NH Maple Producers. For up to date info about Maple Weekend, check with individual producers.

It takes roughly 40 gallons of sap for one gallon of syrup and the financial success of the season depends on the harvest and subsequent price of the product.

Throughout the months of February and March, producers keep a close eye on the weather forecast to check for optimal conditions, which consist of 25 degrees at night and 40 degrees during the day and sunny to help the sap run.

From large producers to smaller hobby operations, every maple syrup producer has different expectations and goals for the season.

Ben’s Sugar Shack

As one of the largest maple syrup producers in the state, Ben Fisk is continually striving to grow his business.

He has a total of 28,000 taps across 11 properties, but only 2,000 of the taps are owned by Fisk as most of the trees are used through leasing agreements. He has two sugar shack locations, one in Temple and the other in Newbury, where the goal for the season is to produce somewhere between 12,000 and 14,000 gallons of syrup – a large increase over last year’s crop or 7,000 gallons.

Fisk said in 2019 he produced about 65 percent of what he wanted, but the anticipated increase stems from a new lease agreement that brings his number of taps closer to 30,000.

“It’s farming and it’s definitely one of the harder ways to make a living,” Fisk said. “Right now we’re having a good season, but next week it could all change.”

During this time of year, Fisk estimates he works 90 to 100 hour each week – and that’s with 25 employees. The first taps went in the trees on Jan. 12 with collection and processing beginning immediately, and Fisk is hoping he’ll still be getting sap through first week of April. If the sap is flowing, Fisk will have four sap trucks on the road collecting.

“All the work in the woods is where you make your money,” Fisk said.

Fisk said when conditions are ideal, he can make 1,000 gallons of syrup in an eight-hour shift using his 5 foot by 14 foot oil fired evaporator. Fisk uses a vacuum system to help remove the sap from the trees and a reverse osmosis machine to reduce the amount of water content in the sap before it goes into the evaporator.

Ben’s Sugar Shack syrup is in bigger stores like Big Y, Market Basket and Trader Joes, while Fisk estimates at any given time his product can be in 4,500 to 6,000 stores in 15 states.

“To make a living, you have to keep expanding, but your profits stay the same.” Fisk said. “It’s all about pricing.”

With such a high demand, Fisk has agreements with dozens of farms to sell their syrup.

“We can’t make all our own syrup anymore,” Fisk said. “But if you come here directly, you know you’re getting our syrup.”

As the business continues to grow, Fisk is always looking for ways to expand. That’s why he built the second location in Newbury and has plans to open a new expanded sugar house on Route 101 in Temple, just down the street from the existing operation – a project he’s been working on for the last four or five years.

Somero Maple Farm

Peter and Reuben Somero added 1,000 taps to their operation this year bringing their total to just over 3,500, most of which come through leased properties.

The brothers started making syrup in their backyard before they could drive and enjoyed everything about it. Eventually it grew into a seasonal business in their hometown of New Ipswich and last year they produced 300 gallons of syrup.

It’s a side business for them, but one they want to see grow and expand. It started with just buckets on trees, but now the Someros have a good amount of lines that are gravity fed to make for less busy work during the season – most of which now comes after the sap stops running and all the lines and tanks need to be cleaned.

“Both ways are a lot of work,” Reuben said.

Both do it part time and have other jobs, but if they can make enough syrup to be able to buy new equipment and replace lines, anything above that is an added bonus. In addition to selling their syrup and maple products at their sugar house, Reuben said they wholesale their products to other areas of New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts and Washington state.

“It’s pretty hard to make money compared to the big producers,” Reuben said.

But it’s about the process of turning sap into syrup that makes Reuben drill all those holes each February. So far it’s been a good year – but that can change.

“It’s farming. You have good years and you have bad years,” Reuben said. “I want to be optimistic and it’s not like you can doing anything about the weather.”

Old Pound Road Sugar House

Charlie Levesque has been maple sugaring for more than 30 years, including the last 20 on his property in Antrim.

With approximately 900 taps, about two-thirds of which are on his property, a good year is around 100 gallons, which Levesque was hoping to surpass last week. His lines are gravity fed and doesn’t do buckets anymore “because doing buckets is just an absolute nightmare at this scale.”

“For the number of taps we have, we should make a lot more syrup than we do,” Levesque said.

The maple operation is part of a larger company, Innovative Natural Resource Solutions, LLC, that Levesque, a licensed forester, helped found in 1994, and specializes in forest policy, renewable energy, environmental auditing, and land conservation, offering consulting in all aspects of natural resources. 

With an operation of his size, Levesque just wants to “make enough to cover my costs and maybe 75 cents an hour to a dollar an hour.”

Levesque said his biggest cost is buying containers each season, while he replaced about a third of the lines and used all new plastic taps this season.

He invested in a small reverse osmosis machine seven years ago. It cut down on his boiling time by about three quarters.

Levesque tapped on Feb. 14, using a weekend to get set up and expects to get sap through the end of March. His rule of thumb is the sap will run for six or seven weeks after drilling the hole.

Babel’s Sugar Shack

For the first time since he started making syrup in 2006, Jeff Babel tapped his first trees in January. It was the last day of January, but nevertheless he usually starts around President’s Day.

A good year for Babel is around 100 gallons from his 350 taps that are both on his property in Mason as well as Beaver Brook Conservation Area in Hollis.

At the start to the season, Babel had some “incredible runs” and was inundated with sap to process, which is much easier on the weekends as he works full time.

The hope is to bring in enough money to reinvest toward new equipment and yearly necessities for 2021.

“If you look at the amount of time you put in, you probably make 30 cents an hour,” he said.

He uses mostly lines, but does put buckets around because people like to see them.

Babel typically participates in Maple Weekend, but because of concerns around the spread of the coronavirus, he isn’t this year.

“It’s too bad because we sell a third of our syrup that weekend,” Babel  said. “But it’s for everyone’s safety and hopefully we can still get those sales.”


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