Farmer-driven research explores birch syrup production for maple sugarmakers

Birch tree tapped for sap collection as part of the farmer-driven Northern New York Agricultural Development Program project evaluating opportunities for birch syrup production. Photo: Michael L. Farrell

The farmer-driven Northern New York Agricultural Development Program has posted the results of a project exploring opportunities for regional maple sugarmakers to produce birch syrup. Four sugarhouses participated in the 2015-2016 birch syrup project; one each in Clinton, Essex, Franklin and Jefferson counties.

‘All species of birch trees produce sap that can be processed into syrup that sells at a high price point,’ says project leader Michael L. Farrell, author of The Sugarmaker’s Companion: An Integrated Approach to Producing Syrup from Maple, Birch and Walnut Trees.

‘In some areas a gallon of birch syrup can sell for $200 with gross revenues of $20 per tap, which is significantly higher than most maple syrup operations generate,’ says Farrell, director of the Cornell University Uihlein Forest in Lake Placid.

But, Farrell quickly points out that while birch syrup production has the potential to be a profitable enterprise for existing maple producers, several prerequisites are required, including a proper number of birch trees to produce a sufficient amount of sap to support efficient use of commercial-scale maple processing equipment.

One option for smaller sugarmakers that Farrell suggests in the Producing Syrup from Birch Trees in NNY report posted at www.nnyagdev.org is to pool their birch sap for processing by one larger commercial operation.

Paul Smith’s College Visitor Interpretive Center Maple Program transported the sap collected from 61 paper birch trees there 20 miles to the Uihlein Forest sugarhouse for processing.

Farrell notes that the trial at Paul Smith’s also produced conclusive evidence that using 5/16-inch spouts will provide significantly more sap than 3/16-inch spouts.

In Ellenburg Center, Brandy Brook Maple Farm owner Joy Herfurth tapped 40 white and yellow birch trees and gathered data on sugar content and sap volume. She made about two gallons of birch syrup. A half-gallon sold for $80.

‘I was interested to participate in this research as a way to develop an opportunity for extra income. We used a smaller boiling pan that helps extend our maple season when sap volume decreases,’ Herfurth says. ‘This type of regional research is part of helping landowners discover untapped resources they may not be aware of or may be cutting down for firewood.’

For now, producing birch syrup is on hold at Brandy Brook Maple Farm which has 10,000 maple taps and has opened a new maple-influenced winery, but Herfurth says if birch syrup catches on with consumers, specialty food stores, and restaurants to build market demand she will consider tapping the 150 or so birch trees she has in the future.

Birch syrup is produced on a commercial scale by sugarmakers in Alaska and Canada. Farrell says, ‘More birch syrup production research and consumer awareness building could help North Country sugarmakers expand their use of the northern New York land base with this niche product.’

The farmer-driven Northern New York Agricultural Development Program is a research and technical assistance program serving Clinton, Essex, Franklin, Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties. Funding for the Northern New York Agricultural Development Program is supported by the New York State Senate and administered through the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets.

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