We had a very good season this year. Sap started running in early March, rather dark. Then we had a three week cold snap, so the sap only ran a few hours a day, and frequently not at all out in the woods. Unusually, the syrup got lighter during this time. The sap froze nicely and we were able to store it and boil every two or three days.
Then we had a very good run the first nine days of April. The syrup stayed light up until the 7th, and we finished the season with some gloriously yummy grade B. We made three times the syrup we did last year, and spilled a lot of sap on the ground because we had no place to store it. I’m using the new check valve taps almost exclusively. Whether or not they are the reason, most of our tap holes ran for six solid weeks. I still had twenty taps running when I pulled them on the 9th. That was almost certainly the last day, and twenty taps is too few if the sap won’t freeze for storage.
Our “hobby” model evaporator is rated for 50-100 taps, and I now understand why. This is our fourth year, and we’re out of reasons to blame low production on ourselves. Last year, the Keene Sentinel had an article about a family of four that was using the same evaporator to handle 300 taps. They had a sugar house, day jobs but no chores, and the kids were 18 and 22, so they could boil 12 hours/day, seven days/week. We can’t do that, but we can improve our setup.
The first item is dry firewood. With that on hand, we could light up before chores in the morning. Even timesharing with the chores, we would get an extra hour’s boiling. Then we need a sugar house so we can boil when the weather sucks. Note, this is not an unmixed blessing. A sleet storm is a fine excuse for a much needed day off. Finally, for those really great running days, more storage. 55 gallon food grade drums are only 20 bucks. The four we bought this year saved our tails. Four more could keep us from spilling sap onto the ground.
With all of the above, I think we could handle 200 taps in a good year, which we easily have. Then we’ll look at expanding again. Maple is one of the few solidly profitable agricultural products here in the Northeast, which brings its own issues.
First, because it is profitable, production is expanding rapidly. There doesn’t seem to be any imminent danger of saturating the market, especially with the high loonie preventing Quebec from underselling domestic production. However, equipment manufacturers are also charging top dollar. Comparably complex equipment, for other types of furnace or food preparation is probably 25% less for comparable quality. Given that welded stainless steel is never actually cheap, this matters.
Next, you have to have enough throughput to pay yourself a decent wage. The rule of thumb seems to be that in a good but not great year, your revenue will roughly match the cost of your equipment and supplies, with nothing extra to actually pay anyone. For a hobby this is great. Most hobbies cost, frequently a lot. However, for a profitable sideline on a farm, you need to figure about 100 hours pay (fully burdened) plus expendable supplies, plus 20% (5 year depreciation) on the equipment. (This is a swag. Yes, it will last longer, but then I’d have to allow for maintenance and repair.)
And with a hand-wave worthy of any professor who’s lost his line of reasoning, I think you’re looking at gross revenues of about 8 grand to make it all fly. We’re selling retail instead of wholesale, which lowers our capital costs at a trade-off of more labor, but I think the nut is the same.
Like all out other enterprises, we need to expand.
Lessons Learned: Optimum firewood is half pine, half hardwood. Pine for quick start up and die down, morning and night. But hardwood will burn longer between stokings midday. Popple sucks. One would think that nice, dry, light popple would be a good substitute for pine. One would be wrong. It has the same heat content as pine all right, but it burns as long as oak. It’s better than nothing, but not by much.