NEWBURGH, Maine — Len Price is tall and serene, with an easygoing smile and weathered hands. Twenty-nine years ago, he tapped his first maple tree. A proud, hardworking man with a passion for nature, he cross-country skis the many trails on his property every morning, taking time to check out the condition of the powder-blue tubing crisscrossing his 100-acre homestead.
Since that first tap, Price and his wife, Nancy, have created a thriving maple syrup and Christmas tree business, making enough money to stay out of debt and send their two children to college.
The sweet industry brings more than $27 million to the Maine economy and is attractive to many, such as Len and Nancy, who want to find a way to make their family more in tune with nature.
A way of life
At the Price’s Nutkin Knoll Farm, the business has been built with a connection to their land. Nearly all the lumber used for the four out buildings was sustainably harvested from the woods surrounding their sturdy white farmhouse.
“I guess you could say we wanted to get back to the land,” Len Price said. “It’s [also] a good excuse not to watch TV every night.”
For decades, syrup and maintaining the farm has filled his and Nancy’s free time. Every morning, Len Price wakes up with the sun and gets to work.
There are animals to feed — sweet-faced Katahdin sheep, chickens and an old brown-and-white spotted pony. In March and April, there are lines to check and, on a good day, syrup to boil, sometimes late into the night.
But Len Price doesn’t mind. There’s great pride is working your land, he says, in contributing to society instead of just taking.
“I’m empowered because I can do something. I’m worth something as a producer, not just as a consumer,” Len Price said.
A retired biology teacher, Price loves to teach visitors at events such as Maine Maple Sunday about the science behind harvesting and making syrup. However, he said these days fewer people are curious about how syrup is made. Instead, they are more interested in the novelty of the items they’re purchasing.
“For some people, it’s like going to the mall on a Saturday afternoon,” he said.
Syrup by the numbers
The syrup industry in Maine has taken off during the past few years. Producers make about 545,000 gallons per year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That’s almost enough to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool and doesn’t include the dozens of other value-added products syrup can be turned into — jams, candies, butters and cotton candy to name a few.
Kevin Brannen, vice president of the Maine Maple Producers Association and owner of Spring Break Maple and Honey in Smyrna, credits the increase in interest to the price of syrup and the availability of advanced technology. He said while it can be expensive upfront to enter into commercial production, the backyard or hobbyist producer can do so for relatively low cost.
“The prices [of syrup] have been stable for a good number of years, and that seems to help,” Brannen said. “It’s getting bigger every year. There’s new producers entering, and the ones already in it seem to be expanding.
Len Price is one of those.
During the past three years, he has increased his acreage of tapped land and invested in reverse osmosis and wet-dry vacuum systems that allow him to harvest and process more sap per tree.
With 1,000 taps, he’s considered a “mid-size” farm but just barely. Mid-size farms usually have 1,000 to 3,000 taps. Beyond that, Price said, a farmer would jump into the “large operation” category and most likely wouldn’t be able to sell all of his or her product without having to sell wholesale.
He’s careful not to expand too much.
“Right now we can sell all of what we make, but it’s a balance,” he said.
According to the North American Maple Syrup Council, 94 percent of the syrup produced in Maine leaves the state in large drums. The syrup then is processed elsewhere but often finds it’s way back to Maine via grocery stores and smaller companies that may buy it wholesale but sell it in boutique stores.
A study done by Todd Gabe, an economist at the University of Maine, showed that Maine’s maple industry contributes $27.7 million to the state’s economy and more than 500 full- and part-time jobs worth about $17.3 million in wages.
Flashback to the ’70s
A few weeks ago, at Maine Maple Sunday, visitors to Nutkin Knoll and other sugar houses throughout the state had one common question: How has this winter affected this year’s sap run?
According to the maple association, as of Wednesday, March 4 — the honorary first day of the season — many producers say sap ran for the first time. However, the small run was short-lived because of another cold snap moving in shortly after.
Maple trees require cold nights and warm days for anywhere from two to four weeks to produce the most sap.
Brannan, who is used to having his season start several weeks behind producers in central and southern Maine, said while this year wasn’t the worst he’s seen in his lifetime, it was in recent memory.
“Last year was a little bit late, too, and we still haven’t made syrup yet this year,” he said last week. “It’s kind of a throwback to the ’70s [when winters were harder].”
Price said the late start to his harvest season could mean less syrup in time before the taste of the sap changes in preparation for the tree’s buds bursting open. However, Brennan encourages people not to think of the late start as a be-all, end-all to the season.
“The season can last as long as we keep getting the cold nights and warm days. You never know. We can end up having an average or above average season still,” he said.
Regardless of the yield this year, it’s clear syrup in Maine is not just a way of life but something for the state to take pride in.
“We make really good syrup in Maine. Yes, Vermont makes more, but we make some of the best,” Price said.