Coronavirus concerns prompt maple producers to scramble during their busiest business weekends of the year

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March in New York typically is plum maple syrup time, but the rapid spread of the coronavirus throughout the state prompted the cancellation of one of the better avenues that helps producers get their products into the hands of customers.

The New York State Maple Producers Association cancelled the traditional Maple Weekend because of the coronavirus pandemic. Maple Weekend events were scheduled for March 21 and 22 and March 28 and 29 at more than 160 maple farms across the state, including several in the Ontario County area.

This comes on the heels of what some maple producers and industry experts are calling a season ranging from excellent to so-so.

As with many other businesses — including restaurants and bars — that are facing mandatory reduced hours and outright closures, many producers are adapting and trying to make do.

As part of the Maple Weekend festivities, Kettle Ridge Farm in Victor typically opens its grounds to visitors to amble about and view demonstrations of the 2,000-tap maple-sugaring operation, according to owner Joe Hurley.

“For most maple producers, it’s the biggest event of the year,” Hurley said. “It’s when a large amount of products are sold.”

But earlier in the week, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that bars and restaurants were to close temporarily, except for offering takeout and curbside services. And on Friday, Cuomo ordered all non-essential businesses to close as of Sunday evening and temporarily banned non-essential gatherings of people of any size.

Like with restaurants, maple producers are going with grab-and-go operations. Garry Wohlschlegel of Wohlschlegel’s Naples Maple Farm is setting up farmer’s market-esque tents for customers to swing by and pick up and go from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. this weekend.

As for the planned pancake breakfast?

“That is shot down,” Wohlschlegel said.

Christopher Schoff, of Schoff’s Sugar Shack in Victor, spent part of his day Friday setting up a maple drive-thru operation, complete with stations for visitors to sanitize hands and others that showcase some of the operation, although the enclosed sugar shack is off-limits.

Typically, about half of the calendar year sales are made during the Maple Weekends, Schoff said. He’s anticipating one fifth of that.

“It’s going to be a tough year for sales,” Schoff said. “Or, we could be flooded. I don’t know what to expect. This is the world we live in.”

Bigger picture, according to Russell Welser, senior resource educator for the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Ontario County: Maple syrup is considered by many to be a luxury item.

"With people out of work, they're not going to be buying these sorts of things," Welser said.

Hurley said visitors will be able to drive the grounds and because Kettle Ridge has a food truck, pancakes and maple syrup also can be enjoyed for takeout without visitors ever having to leave the car.

This is an effort not just to continue the farm’s maple operation, but also provide for the people who work it, Hurley said.

“I have three year-round employees all with young families and I want to do everything possible to protect their incomes,” Hurley said.

Over in Clifton Springs, Syrup A’LaRue, which focuses on specialty items such as a hickory and a blend of maple and walnut syrups, is in the third year of an expanded maple operation, according to owner Morgan Hoven.

That said, the operation is not huge at all. Maple Weekend events are cancelled there this weekend, he said, but for next weekend, people will be able to call or email ahead of time and place orders, come over and pick them up.

“The bigger maple producers bank on Maple Weekends,” Hoven said, whether in New York or other syrup-making states such as Vermont and New Hampshire.

What’s lost is not only the econoimic opportunity for farmers, but the opportunity to showcase what they do and encourage people to get out of the house after a long winter and learn more about how maple syrup gets to their breakfast table.

“It’s a great educational opportunity,” Hoven said.

There still is that learning opportunity at Kettle Ridge.

The Victor farm’s free self-driving tour starts at the farm’s entrance at 515 Log Cabin Road and takes visitors past an old-fashioned iron kettle over an open fire, a modern maple evaporator in the farm’s sugarhouse, a new 3,000-square-foot sugarhouse under construction, and the famous KettleFest racing chickens.

Breakfast and Kettle Ridge Farm maple and honey products can be ordered, which are quickly and safely delivered to cars as they drive past the food truck and retail stations.

“We are doing this for families who want to get out but not be exposed,” Hurley said. “They stay in their cars the whole time just like any other drive-thru and are able to purchase pancakes, fresh doughnuts, and other maple products, and at the same time they get to see the farm and maple operation.”

Many already know this, but it bears repeating: Maple is big business in New York.

According to the Western New York Maple Producers Association in Varysburg, Wyoming County, New York is the second-largest maple producing state in the United States with 2.8 million taps producing 820,000 gallons of syrup, and accounting for 20 percent of the syrup made in the U.S. in 2019.

Welser said this season's weather conditions have been conducive for maple producers, although some producers disagree on just how good it has been.

"I would say it's been an excellent season for them, as long as they started way back in January," Welser said.

Hurley and Hoven have said this season’s maple output has been OK, but not great.

Hurley said the season started early in January and is ending now; the season usually goes to the end of March or early April.

“Our 2020 crop is about two thirds of our 2019 crop,” Hurley said. “Sap production has been hampered by fewer cold nights and lack of snow. This has also resulted in lower sugar content, which means it has taken as many as 70 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup.”

Schoff said he is down 25 percent from last year’s production.

“It’s just been too warm,” he said.

Depending on how maple business and the rest of the spring goes — and whatever ends up happening with the coronavirus — Syrup A’LaRue may try a different sort of weekend event centered on the blueberries grown there in the spring.

“We’ll just adapt and keep moving forward,” Hoven said. 

Many maple farms have websites for customers to order products from and are taking orders by phone and email.

• Wohlschlegel's Naples Maple Farm, 8064 Coates Road. Call 585-775-7770 or visit https://www.fingerlakesbulkmaplesyrup.com/.

• Kettle Ridge Farm, 515 Log Cabin Road, Victor. Call 585-217-7108 or visit https://www.kettleridgefarm.com/.

• Schoff's Sugar Shack, 1064 Willis Hills Road, Victor. Call 585-924-3769 or visit http://schoffssugarshack.com/index.html.

• Syrup A' LaRue, 927 LaRue Road, Clifton Springs. Call 315-879-7390, email yrupalarue@gmail.com or visit https://www.facebook.com/SyrupALaRue/.

Maple sugaring weekends at Cumming Nature Center have been postponed until May.