It’s maple season… for a moment.
Together, Mother Nature and maple farmers plan and pine all year for a brief two-week to month-long harvest. The maple trees go dormant during the late summer and fall, ceasing growth and storing their starches for as long as the trees maintain an internal temperature less than 40 degrees F. Then, as Spring nears and temperatures rise, the trees’ changing internal pressure causes sugar to flow into the tree sap again. Farmers tap the trees in anticipation of this moment, capturing the sucrose sugars as they flow through the trees’ vascular system. It’s all over for the year when the trees hit an internal temperature of approximately 45 degrees F, maybe two or three weeks after the sap begins to flow.
Mountain Winds Farm in Berne was ready for maple season this year. Formerly the Williamson Family Farm, the Grippin Family has owned this maple and chicken farm since 1961. Today, the farm is operated by second-generation farmer Randy Grippin, his wife Sally, and his three children comprising the third-generation of Grippin Family Farmers, Christina, Daniel and Laura. Randy is a Master Forest Owner trained by Cornell University. He started his maple syrup operation in 2005 with 50 pails, and has been growing the operation slowly and sustainably ever since. Today, the farm boasts 50,000 feet of pipeline and 1,300 taps with the capacity to produce 500 gallons of syrup each Spring. Together with his wife, kids, brother and nephews, Randy makes each batch of maple syrup with his wood-fired evaporator by hand. Randy spent the last few months trudging along the hillside of the mountain behind his house, tapping trees and checking miles of pipeline for leaks and gaps. He tinkered with his equipment, and prepared for the sap tsunami.
Early last week Mother Nature turned it on. Then… CRASH, BANG, BOOM… catastrophic failure at Mountain Winds Farm. Randy’s rear evaporator pan burned out. It was a rustic piece of vintage equipment that fit like a jigsaw with the rest of the wood-fired evaporating system. After-market parts for a like piece of equipment do not exist.
I rose early Monday morning to find a distressed email from Randy. ”Just had a major screw-up with evaporator, could very well put me out of business if I can’t get it repaired.”
“What happened? Is there anything I can do to help?” I replied.
The return email: “Got $25,000 in your pocket?”
Well, no- I didn’t. Nor, does anyone I know who works in the farm industry. What’s more, it is nearly impossible for any farmer to leverage any kind of credit or financing these days, especially on short notice. Banks, by and large, do not lend to farmers- it’s too risky of a business. This may seem counterintuitive, considering that food is literally the only thing humans can not live without. Furthermore, Randy has sold out of 100% of his maple syrup in each of the last few years, signifying that he does possess a business plan you SHOULD be able to take to the bank.
Randy needed money immediately, as maple season may only last a few days. Furthermore, as the only maple producer participating in New York’s Statewide Maple Festival in Albany County, Randy was anticipating the arrival of hundreds of families on his farm for tours and tastings over the next two weeks.
Having previously experienced the frustrations of dealing with traditional banks when assisting small farms in financing challenges, I skipped a phone call to a banker. Immediately, I reached out to Senator Gillibrand’s office, who has been extremely supportive of the small farms FarmieMarket works with. Her local agriculture liaison was helpful, putting Randy and I in touch with some potential resources available through the Farm Service Agency (FSA) and New York State Maple Producers Association. However, this was not going to be a quick fix. I also reached out to the Albany-Colonie Regional Chamber of Commerce, an organization that has been refreshingly supportive and eager to help advance the local food movement in the Capital Region. They were glad to help; but still, time constraints were tight.
With no time to waste, and no alternatives, Randy bit the bullet and leveraged his future for his future, borrowing from his retirement to keep his business afloat. Working with his retirement manager, Randy was able to attain a promise that they could transfer funds to his account to cover the costs of new equipment by early the following week. This, however, did not solve Randy’s predicament of being able to host maple demonstrations on the farm that weekend.
Thankfully, although the banks won’t extend farmers any credit, at least other farmers will! Randy called a maple equipment manufacturer based in Swanton, Vermont, about 200 miles from home. The people at Leader Evaporator Company, Inc. were happy to work with Randy, understanding his precarious position as a farmer with thousands of gallons of collected sap in danger of spoilage due to lack of access to processing equipment. Randy and the owner set up an appointment for Wednesday for Randy to pick up two new pans. The trusting owner of Leader Evaporators graciously let Randy leave his facility without putting a dime down on nearly $20,000 worth of equipment.
By Thursday morning, Randy was back to work in the sugar house with his brother Jeff, a welder, creatively working to retrofit his wood burner with the new evaporator pans. And by Saturday morning, I was eating freshly made maple syrup from Mountain Winds Farm on my pancakes at the Berne Reformed Church public pancake breakfast.
Farming is a lot of things- planning, sweating, anticipating. The thing you can never count on, though, is the harvesting- no matter how experienced a farmer you may be. In my short 28 years I’ve seen harvests lost to blight, newborn calves lost to flood, barns lost to heavy snow, feed lost to fire, maple seasons lost to global warming, and livelihoods lost to freak Upstate hurricanes in one year and drought in the next.
What does my heart good, though (and I consider myself lucky for) is that I’ve never seen one farmer hang another farmer out to dry. Farmers give each other credit where credit is due, because we can all count on the fact that at some point down the road it will be our own livelihood on the line.
In close, I’d like to encourage all of you to visit Mountain Winds Farm for the second weekend of the New York State Maple Festival, March 23rd and 24th. Eat a pancake breakfast at the Knox Fire House from 9-1 on Sunday (the 24th). Then, make your way over to Mountain Winds Farm at 12 Williamson Road in Berne to learn more about maple syrup, buy a gallon, restore a retirement, and congratulate Randy on a job well-done. He’ll be very glad to see you!