“Maple syrup holds a special place in the hearts and imaginations of the American public. It’s a unique tradition in the Northeast, and it really draws the public interest every year,” said Aaron Wightman.

Wightman is a Cornell Extension associate in the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment and serves as the statewide maple specialist and co-director of the Cornell Maple Program.

Because of the unique draw of maple syrup, Wightman believes that maple producers have an opportunity to create meaningful and profitable agritourism experiences for the public. It does, however, require careful planning to ensure a safe and successful visitor experience.

Provide Historical Context

In Wightman’s opinion, maple syrup producers should provide historical context for their visitors. He said, “If you can make some connection to the actual sugaring activities that took place on your farm in the past, that’s especially interesting to people who are visiting your specific sugarbush.”

Producers should share personal sugaring history but also try to provide some overall historical context such as the Indigenous production of maple syrup and innovations in technology which have changed the industry over time.

Capitalize on the Aesthetics

Maple sugaring operations are often places of peace and beauty that other agricultural enterprises may lack. In order to take advantage of the idyllic settings, Wightman suggested providing visitors with viewpoints in the sugarbush where they can stop and enjoy themselves.

Tours (self-guided or guided) are also a possibility, although producers should be aware the additional foot traffic may create mud. Wood chips along the walking trails should be considered. Regardless of what visitor experience is created, signage should provide clear instructions for the visitors, including where to park.

Additionally, sugarhouses offer an opportunity to captivate customers, but they should be well-lit with clean decor. “If you’re not into the interior decorating thing it might be helpful to find someone who is,” Wightman said.

Know Your Customers

One goal of maple agritourism is to sell maple syrup and maple products. Understanding customer demand is an important aspect of creating a profitable event. Wightman said households in New England spend $86 annually on maple products – 45% of that is fluid syrup with the rest representing products such as candies, maple cream, maple-coated nuts or maple barbecue sauce.

According to the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets, the breakdown of package size preference is 31.9% quarts, 27.2% pints, 12.6% no preference, 12.1% half gallons, 8.9% gallons and 7.3% half pints.

Wightman wants maple syrup producers to be aware of these buying trends and encouraged producers to offer a range of products to help drive sales. Producers should also be aware that what consumers like about maple syrup and maple products may not align with the producer perspective.

A recent study by the New York State Maple Producers Association found that consumers are not persuaded by the idea that maple products are healthier than cane sugar. The study also found that they don’t like being scolded for consuming imitation maple syrup. What they were persuaded by is the fact that maple syrup is a pure, single ingredient product that can be used in a variety of ways. Producers can capitalize on this idea by providing recipes that use maple products in novel ways.

Adding agritourism to your maple operation

Captivate the Customer

“Another interesting facet of maple production is just the processes involved. People are really fascinated by all these strange phenomena like the pressurization cycle in trees that causes sap to flow,” Wightman said. Other processes – tapping, setting up tubing or buckets, using reverse osmosis and watching a steaming evaporator – can also be demonstrated to engage and educate visitors. Some operations have gone as far as building a viewing platform above the evaporator.

Providing visitors with hands-on experiences related to maple production are likely to make them stay longer and potentially make purchases. One idea Wightman suggested is to set up some drill bits and tapping tools and allow visitors to tap a piece of wood or stump. Another idea is to set up a station with some tubing and fittings so they can understand the mechanics of tubing. Another hands-on experience is to provide giveaways such as spouts, coloring books and samples.

Avoid the Pitfalls

Sugarhouses are often located in remote areas with confusing directions. Wightman advised that when advertising an event to provide clear instructions and to alert people that their GPS may not work. Signs can also be placed along the route. Producers should also anticipate that parking areas can quickly become muddy and consider surfacing these areas with stone. Having a few round bales on hand to cover up muddy areas may also be helpful.

“Once people are on your farm it’s also helpful to direct them with signs that point where to go. Organize your tourism event so that there’s a sequence of stops so people can go in a specific direction – stops one, two, three, four, five – and then end at the cash register. It prevents confusion with crowds and people see all the sites,” Wightman said.

Finally, at any agritourism event the safety of the visitor should always be at the forefront. Maple products need to be made in accordance with the highest standards of safety and quality. Wightman also recommended protecting guests by doing a walk-through and looking for possible hazards. Some specific safety actions include roping off hot surfaces around the evaporator, eliminating slipping hazards and securing off-limits areas.