by Elizabeth A. Tomlin

GEORGETOWN, NY — It’s tough to make a decision to exit the dairy industry and forge ahead into another agribusiness. But Pete and Kathy Walrod, dairy farmers for 43-years, did just that.

“Kathy and I were one-generation dairy farmers. Neither one of us grew up on a dairy farm,” explained Pete Walrod. “Many friends carry the burden or responsibilities to past generations when they decide to exit dairy — or make major life changes.” Walrod says this is a heavy weight for those farmers and hinders decision making.

No stranger to the maple industry, Walrod’s life is entwined with maple memories.

“I started tapping trees around my mom’s house when I was 10-years-old,” recalls Pete. “She drove the truck. We sold sap through my high school years.”

Walrod went to work for one of the farmers who bought their sap, and that farmer helped him start a farm.

“He signed a note with me and we bought 12 cows and rented a farm, and that’s how we got started in 1973.”

Although Walrod kept up with selling sap, he never took the maple business further until 1997, when he was able to expand into maple syrup production.

“We didn’t have the finances when we were buying the farm and raising a family. Finally, we bought a used outfit and we remodeled the shop and set an evaporator up in there and started selling syrup.”

Still milking cows, they started small, building a sugar-house in the woods and eventually working up to 2,000 taps.

Walrods first stepped away from milking Holsteins in 2007 when their adult children showed no interest in pursuing the dairy and Pete and Kathy did all of the work.

“We loved dairy farming,” Pete emphasized. “It’s all we ever wanted to do. We loved the cattle. And we missed it, so we went back into milking with Brown Swiss. We went with the Swiss for 9 years.”

Finally accepting that without another generation to carry on, they needed to exit the dairy industry completely, Walrods decided to expand their maple business — and this was an endeavor their children were interested in helping to develop.

The passion that went into Walrod’s dairy was transferred to their maple.

“We expanded our maple from about 2,000 taps to a little over 8,000, and we buy sap from about another 3,000 right now.”

Walrod credits NY FarmNet for their successful transition from dairy to maple.

“I can’t say enough good, I can’t give enough compliments to the help that FarmNet gave us in making this transition — not only in exiting dairy, but in making the transition into another enterprise. They were tremendous resources for us — and I want folks to realize that it’s out there.”

NY FarmNet helped develop and implement a business plan, including details of timing, how to get through the sale, and transferring assets to the new enterprise.

Many Maples Farm continues to be an all-family business.

“We do it all with family. Our son Sam and his wife Donna are our full-time partners in the operation. We have two other daughters, Stacy and Casey, and nine grandchildren here weekends. They all come at different times and help when they can.”

What began as a family get-together around the evaporator with pancakes and syrup in late winter, responded to community demand, expanding into a ‘Pancake Restaurant’ managed by Sam and Donna. Folks attend on a regular basis to eat their fill.

Walrods worked with the Madison County Department of Public Health obtaining restaurant permits.

“Last year was the first year that we opened to the public. This year we’ve expanded it through the month of February and March. It started really, because of how many people enjoyed coming to our family sugar-house.”

Wildlife and weather can present challenges for the operation.

“It’s constant! Deer, squirrels, coyotes, there’s a lot of critters that think tubing is a plastic chew toy in the woods. And they’re quite happy to stand there and play with it like a bunch of heifers or puppies. So, there’s a lot of repairs.”

High winds bringing down limbs and branches and cause “chainsaw work.”

Tent caterpillars also have caused damage. Now, Spotted Lantern-fly has to be scouted for as well.

“It’s threatening. It’s something that’s concerning to us — the maple producers, and others, too, like the grape industry. As maple producers, we just continue to be diligent about it and try to watch and educate ourselves.”

Walrod believes there is still opportunity in the maple industry for new producers and new markets.

“People are using maple to replace refined sugar in their diets. We had calls just today with orders for granulated maple sugar from people who want to make the change from refined sugar. They’re looking for a healthy alternative. Until something becomes negative about maple, I think we’ll continue to see growth in usage and I think you’ll continue to see a lot of maple being marketed and moved. Our sales continue to grow, even though there’s a lot of maple being made. I think maple will continue to flourish.”

The farm does most of their marketing by word-of-mouth, right from home and have invested in a large road sign, having discovered back in 1998 that a good sign will positively impact sales.

“We’re getting folks from all over the nation driving through here!”

Folks from Virginia that had stopped and purchased a quart of maple syrup when they drove by have now called to place a much larger order.

Many Maples currently offers syrup and value-added maple products, including, ice cream, granulated sugar, cotton candy, maple cream, maple candy, gift baskets, wedding favors, military and other gift orders.

“We ship all over the country – and the world,” said Pete. “It usually starts with somebody that’s been in the sugar-house. We’ve had folks from Alaska and Idaho who we took all around the woods. They’re fascinated with this whole process.”

Many Maples goods can be found at local festivals, field days and shops.

Tours are available, and Pete emphasizes that direct contact with people is critical to success.

“You’ve got to be able to talk to your consumers. If we have the opportunity to make contact with that consumer and educate them, you’ll find they’ll be loyal to the person that they feel comfortable with.”

Walrod believes that with a good location, attitude and family support, farmers can be successful in the maple industry.

“You can get in real slow. Work your woods so that maybe you’ll start selling sap. But if you’re in a location where you can retail and market, I think that it’s an avenue of profitability on a farm. Even if a farmer can’t do it on the scale that some folks are doing maple, there’s an opportunity to sell sap or lease your woods. Look into this!”

Pete and Kathy take great pleasure in the pride they feel having their family working beside them.

“There’s been times when I look through those windows of the Pancake Restaurant and see 4 or 5 grandchildren with their Many Maple shirts on, and the pride that it gives you to think that they’re interested in something that I’ve liked and I’ve enjoyed my whole life, and now my grandchildren are interested in it, that’s pretty satisfying.”

Many Maples Farm hosts the annual Georgetown Volunteer Fire Department Pancake Breakfast fundraiser on Maple Weekend.

“We’ve been donating syrup to it for over 20 years, since we started in 1997, our first year of maple syrup production. It’s their big fundraiser. We’re happy to support them.”

For more information call 315.837.4480 /email .