By JIMMY LAWTON
St. Lawrence County’s maple syrup production is on the rise, according to statistics from the United States Department of Agriculture.
The numbers show St. Lawrence County was the third-ranked producer of maple syrup in New York State in both 2007 and 2010, but Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, who is working to continue the industry’s uptick, says it may have moved into second place in recent years.
Ritchie said she hopes to support the industry through the recently released “Grown in the New York” plan.
She said New York produces about 20 percent of the nation’s maple syrup, second only to Vermont in production.
Although the local maple industry is on the rise, Ritchie said it is no where near its potential, as only about 2 percent of maple trees in New York State are used for syrup production.
In 2007, the USDA reported 96 St. Lawrence County producers tapped 116,000 trees to produce 20,575 gallons of syrup.
In 2010, 115 St. Lawrence County producers tapped 158,000 trees to produce 30,500 gallons of syrup.
“There is definitely a large growth in production, but there is room for a lot more. It’s an industry we need to support,” she said.
Although current numbers weren’t available, Ritchie said the industry is on the rise despite a particularly poor 2012 season, which was hindered by warm weather.
The growth is not surprising for Doug Thompson, president of St. Lawrence County Maple Producers.
He said a “back-to-the-land movement” has driven many people toward agriculture and the maple industry is no exception.
And while the majority of these hobbyists aren’t earning a living on the production, they are putting money into the economy.
“Nowadays there are a lot more people tapping trees,” he said. “I know it’s an issue that Cornell Cooperative Extension deals with all the time. There is a big interest from people who want to learn about it.”
For Thompson though, maple production is more than a hobby. He says it’s a way of life that was once a vital source of income to North Country farmers as they prepared for spring’s work after a long cold winter.
He said syrup was once considered the farmer’s first crop of the year and the sales allowed producers to purchase seed to plant fields in the spring.
Although that tradition has shifted over the years and many produce the syrup for personal use, for some it is still a deep-rooted tradition and source of income.
Thompson, who taps about 6,000 trees a year, said estimating or identifying the true economic impact maple syrup producers have in St. Lawrence County would be tricky because of the diverse operation sizes.
In St. Lawrence County Thompson says producers range from using as few as 10 taps to as many as 35,000.
Because many producers don’t run their operations as businesses, he said it is also hard to identify just how many sugarers are around.
He said the St. Lawrence County Maple Producers has about 65 members, but he estimated there are a lot of producers that haven’t joined. “I doubt seriously if we have a third of the producers in the county as members,” he said.
Thompson said it would also be hard to come up with a production or profit average. “The spectrum is really wide,” he says.
Just like any other crop, Thompson said maple syrup harvests depend a lot on the weather, causing them to vary from year to year.
In a good season, Thompson says he can make about 2,500 gallons of syrup, which translates to roughly $60,000 in sales, but much of that money is poured back into production.
“With agriculture, there is always that multiplier effect that I think gets overlooked. We make a lot of purchases to keep our businesses going.”
For example, Thompson said he recently bought 50 stainless steel drums at more than $200 apiece, in order to conform to Vermont’s storage rules.
He said about $2,000 in fuel is used each season to operate his vacuum pumps which draw the syrup through a serious of lines. He also annually replaces a plastic insert in his 6,000 taps, which are then recycled.
Thompson, who still cooks his maple with a wood fire, said his fuel costs are far less than others who use fuel, but his workload is a bit higher.
He said to produce his 2,500 gallons of syrup, he burns 70 cord of wood.
Regardless of the revenues, the weather or the work involved, Thompson said sugaring is almost like an addiction for him.
“For me there is a relationship between how much sap is running and how much adrenaline is running. When that sap really starts to flow its exciting,” he said.