Big Tree Maple isn’t your typically maple syrup producer. The operation, run by father and son team Lloyd and David Munsee, began in 1993. Located in Chautauqua County, New York, Big Tree Maple’s business model depends not only on the trees they tap, but on those of their neighbors.
“We’re probably a little bit unique in the fact that we don’t own any of the trees that we tap,” Lloyd Munsee said.
Last year was a banner year for the operation, and “a good year for the maple industry as a whole.” 2013 was their best year ever, and they produced over 1,000 gallons of maple syrup. That’s a long way from the 1993 start, when they only had 40 taps.
“Every year since then, we try to do things a little bit bigger and a little bit better,” David said.
With sap from over 4,000 taps, Big Tree Maple has expanded from a small syrup producer to an operation that offers processing to other local sap producers. They purchase sap in bulk from those who don’t want their own syrup, or process syrup for those who want to sell their own product, but don’t have the capacity to process it themselves.
The father-son team also leases 700 taps from nearby landowners. They operate and maintain these taps themselves: they just don’t own the sugarbush.
Additional sap comes from numerous sap producers who work a sugarbush locally, but don’t make syrup. These operators are carefully selected, and agreements are entered into prior to sugaring season. The Munsees have developed regular relationships with most of these sap producers.
“They work somewhat on our schedule,” David said. “If the sap runs on each day, we expect them to bring it in that day.”
If those supplying sap to Big Tree Maple wish, they can receive their product back for their own brand sales, with the Munsees retaining a percentage of the syrup. If not, the Munsees pay a fair price for the bulk sap.
Big Tree Maple has a large sap tank, calibrated to measure the amount of sap within two gallons of accuracy. They can also measure the sugar content of the sap, predicting the syrup output of that batch. This allows them to fairly pay for bulk sap, or calculate the percentage of syrup they’ll retain from the batch of sap.
The sugarhouse uses a 3 foot by 12 foot oil-fired evaporator, and utilizes reverse osmosis in the processing. They recently upgraded the R/O machine, doubling its capacity. Other equipment includes a high-capacity pump for unloading the sap, and large stainless steel tanks, kept in the cooler room, to store the syrup, which is bottled as needed.
With the increased cost of fuel, there is an increased effort “to be efficient producers,” David said. “The single biggest thing is the reverse osmosis machine.”
The Munsees admit that they might have some advantage in the equipment department. They are equipment dealers, selling Lapierre sugaring equipment, and Sugar Hill bottles. Being equipment dealers, they see firsthand the improvements in the industry, and have some oversight into local sugaring trends.
The hobby market is a relatively new market, and one of the trends they see in the industry. Lloyd believes this is due in large part to the increased interest in local food.
The other big trend is “more of a trend towards operations like ourselves, that try to buy sap or lease,” Lloyd said. “Part of that is because of the cost of equipment.”
There are a lot of untapped trees in New York state, and the Big Tree Maple business model is one way in which to capitalize on the local food movement. By increasing the local sap supply, and processing it locally — even if the sugarbush owners don’t wish to process it on their own — a growing demand for local maple syrup can be met.
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“We sell a lot of it right at the farm gate,” Lloyd said of their maple syrup and other maple products. They produce maple sugar, maple cream and molded maple sugar candy. In addition, they sell locally-roasted coffee flavored with maple syrup, and a complete pancake mix which includes pure maple sugar as an ingredient.
They also sell at area craft fairs, and sell some syrup wholesale, but “we market very little in terms of bulk,” David said. A new customer last year was the local brewery, located right across the street. The Southern Tier Brewing Company purchased maple syrup for their fermentation process.
The sugarhouse participates in the annual New York Maple Weekend, and is a member of the Chautauqua County Visitor’s Bureau, both of which provide a lot of advertising and marketing, and help to attract customers to the sugarhouse. They also sell from their website and ship their products.
Maple isn’t all they do at Big Tree Maple. David grows locally-famous sweet corn. He prefers the supersweet varieties, and plants for a continuous supply throughout the months of August and September, planting about 10 acres of sweet corn each season. He is also producing naturally-raised meats, including beef, pork and chicken, and grows all of the feed for the animals. The meat is sold by the freezer side, or by the retail cut. His wife works in the city of Erie, and much of the meat is sold to customers there.
Leasing the sugarbush, and purchasing sap from local landowners who don’t want to process the sap themselves, allows sap that otherwise would not be tapped to become pure New York State maple syrup.
“I think the way we do things is becoming more common than it used to be,” Lloyd said. “Like a lot of things in agriculture, you have to be efficient.”
For more information visit www.bigtreemaple.com