It was approximately zero degrees out, and Mike Farrell greeted me in front of his house in jeans and a sweatshirt. Since it was -28 last week, the folks up here in the Adirondacks have gotten to think of this weather as not cold enough for a coat.
“We picked up our year’s supply of maple syrup up at the sugar house,” I told Farrell. “We got a whole gallon.” Farrell, 34, is the director of Cornell University’s 200-acre Uihlein Forest in Lake Placid, NY, a sugar maple research field station where he taps 5,000 maple trees and turns the sap into a couple thousand gallons of syrup each winter. Read an article about maple syrup these days and his name inevitably pops up. His job is to grow maple syrup production in the state, and it’s working. In fact, over the last five years, maple syrup has been the fastest growing agricultural industry in the U.S.
But it’s not just his job. Farrell may by now have become biologically part tree. He drinks syrup in his raw milk every day, and dresses his homegrown vegetables with maple balsamic vinegar in the summer. He cooks with raw sap and drinks it straight from the tree as a “spring tonic.” (Endearingly, he has trouble pronouncing his ‘r’s – especially when tired, which during the six-week syruping season is a given – so it comes out “spwing tonic.”)
“That’s not a year’s supply,” said Farrell. He threw his head back and laughed at the thought. “That’s a month’s supply.”
“But the average American only consumes three ounces a year,” he added soberly. That’s thanks to corn syrup-based imitations like Aunt Jemima.
Still, the maple syrup industry is experiencing a renaissance, notwithstanding the strange weather conditions that made 2012 a pathetic year for sap yields. New York had 167,000 more taps in trees last winter than in 2010, according to stats from the United States Department of Agriculture.
Why the boom? There are the obvious reasons. People are into buying local and growing your own. The maple industry – historically slow to warm to new technology – is getting over its reluctance, adopting vacuum tubing systems to collect sap, and reverse osmosis machines to extract water. A University of Vermont researcher recently invented a spout with a one-way valve that prevents sap from re-entering the tree when the tree contracts at night in the cold. It used to be that bacteria would get into the tree and cause tap holes to scab over, so that if you tapped too early, you could miss the end of the syrup season. The one-way spout allows taps to run indefinitely so there’s no reason not to tap early.
But first and foremost, we can thank Canada for the resurgence of the northeast’s maple industry. Canada is the king of maple syrup. If our northerly neighbor’s mindset were anything like ours, Canadian producers could easily undersell their American competition. But they’ve got “more of a socialist system,” said Farrell. The Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers, which controls the sale of Canadian maple syrup, keeps the price artificially high and limits its members’ production. So Americans, too, have room to make good money.
Then there was the heist. In one of the largest agricultural thefts ever, thieves rented warehouse space next to the strategic reserve in Quebec and stole $18 million worth of syrup, replacing barrels with water to avoid detection. The discovery of the missing syrup this past summer has, said Farrell, “probably been the single biggest marketing thing for the maple industry. All of a sudden maple syrup is cool. It gets stolen. It’s a topic of conversation, that they have this strategic reserve.”
Although our syrup industry is growing, we are still tapping less than one percent of the country’s 300 million tappable maples. Armed with cordless drills, we’re still not even making as much syrup as we were in 1860, when northerners determined not to buy southern sugar collected sap with horse and buggy. Farrell calls our untapped maples “the biggest wasted opportunity there is.”
“If you were to make up this idea that there’s this beautiful tree and you can make a hole in it and drink the sap and it’s the best drink in the world, and you can make it into the most delicious syrup in the world…” Farrell let his thought drift off. His wife Andrea Farrell finished his sentence for him.
“People would say you were insane,” she said.
Then again, Andrea acknowledged, “As the guy who lives up the road says about Mike, when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
Mike Farrell calls our hundreds of millions of untapped maples the “biggest wasted opportunity there is.”