CGP Community Stories

Brian Ryther, November 30, 2013

Title

Brian Ryther, November 30, 2013

Subject

Farming
Maple Farming
New Lisbon (N.Y. : Town)
Otsego County (N.Y.)
Mill Hollow Maple
Maple Tapping

Description

Brian Ryther is an independent maple producer in New Lisbon, New York, the town where he was born. Alongside his father and brother, Ryther spent his childhood collecting and boiling maple sap from the family’s trees. Having attended Castleton State College in Vermont, Ryther began work in the industrial construction industry. He utilized these skills to fabricate a new arch and new pans for use in a converted sugar house on a piece of land called Mill Hollow. After the economic downturn, Ryther and his wife moved the family back to New Lisbon, allowing him to work full-time in maple syrup production. By 2006, he purchased a commercial evaporator and established his own company, Mill Hollow Maple.

In this interview, Ryther describes everything from the process of making syrup to the state of agricultural production in Otsego County. Particular emphasis is placed on the importance of environmental consciousness and locally-grown produce. Ryther discusses his personal connections with the industry, tree tapping, and the process of refining maple sugar. I visited Mill Hollow Maple twice, once at the old barn and the second at the location of Ryther’s new sugar house, which was then under construction. I interviewed Ryther at the NYSHA Library in Cooperstown, where he is a regular vendor at the farmers' market.

Creator

Alexander Dubois

Publisher

Cooperstown Graduate Program, State University of New York - College at Oneonta

Date

2013-11-30

Rights

New York State Historical Association Library, Cooperstown, NY

Format

audio/mpeg
28.8mB
audio/mpeg
25.2mB
image/jpeg
1854 x 2336 pixels

Language

en-US

Type

Sound
Image

Identifier

13-04

Coverage

New Lisbon, NY
1977-2013

Online Submission

No

Interviewer

Alexander Dubois

Interviewee

Brian Ryther

Location

NYSHA Library
5798 New York 80
Cooperstown, NY

Transcription

Cooperstown Graduate Program
Oral History Project Fall 2013

BR = Brian Ryther
AD = Alex Dubois

[START OF TRACK 1, 0:00:00]

AD:
This is the November 30, [2013] interview of Brian Ryther by Alex Dubois for the Cooperstown Graduate Program’s Community Stories project, recorded at the NYSHA library. So Brian, tell me a little bit about where you grew up.

BR:
I grew up in New Lisbon, N.Y., Otsego County. It’s in the Butternut Valley. I went to elementary school in Morris N.Y., and high school here in Cooperstown.

AD:
What were your parent’s jobs in the area?

BR:
My father was a probation officer here for the county, and my mother stayed with us at home until I’d say I was in the third grade, and then she went to work as a school nurse in another local school, and then eventually moved up to Cooperstown and was an administrator in the medical insurance company here in town.

AD:
So, what were some of your earliest experiences with harvesting maple syrup and maple sap in the area?

BR:
So, let’s see here. From as long as I can remember, and a lot of those memories are probably from photos, my father almost every year would tap our own trees in our yard. He had a flat pan over a stone arch - cinderblock arch - and eventually moved on to what’s called a barrel arch, not any faster or more efficient, but enough that we produced enough maple syrup for our family, a few gallons.

AD:
So, how involved were you with that process?

BR:
I guess dad kept my brother and I pretty involved as far as when it was time to tap the trees we were right there with him. You know, being a small production we just used a brace bit and hung some buckets. So as a small child you could do two or three holes and that would wear you out, and dad would do the rest of them. And once I was old enough and strong enough to carry buckets, I really enjoyed doing it. So, before dad would get home from work, I’d collect the sap. I’d be as involved as I could. In my early teen years, I don’t know so much that I took over, but I would do the majority of the boiling I suppose. Dad might take some of the later shifts and go through the night. Because with a small production like that, we’d end up collecting the sap all week and gathering it, and maybe on the weekend, spending the whole weekend, a couple days straight, boiling it down. It took a very long time just to produce a couple of gallons. But I just really enjoyed stoking the fire, sipping sap out of buckets, tasting the sap in the evaporator as it got sweeter and sweeter. So, it was something we did every year, and just as long as I can remember. So it was like second nature being able to produce maple syrup.

AD:
So obviously there’s a strong family connection between your family and maple syrup production. But what motivated you to work full time in that industry as you grew up?

BR:
Let’s see here. After, I moved to college. I went to college at Castleton State College in central Vermont. And so I moved away, and lived up there for quite a few years. I was probably about 28 years old, and I was pestering my father saying “Are you going to tap trees. I want to bring my family down and make syrup.” And he hemmed and hawed as he likes to do and said he wasn’t going to do it. His arch had rotted and fallen to pieces and he said he needed a new arch, and he wasn’t going to invest in it, and so I took it upon myself. At that time, I was in some heavy industrial construction and I was a pretty good fabricator and welder so I took it upon myself and I built my own arch and my own pans – stainless steel pans – and I got it all together. At that time, I had inherited the farm that I live on now from another friend, and I turned an old tractor bay into the boiling area and I made my arch and pans and brought them down from Vermont and moved them in. And, on the weekends and long holidays throughout February and Presidents’ Week, I tapped the trees and tapped a lot more than dad had ever done. Dad usually did maybe 20 to 25, and I put in 150. He got pretty nervous and scared and my evaporator ended up being pretty efficient and that was when I really took over. So, I guess when I really took over was at the end of that season. Dad had a saying about conventional Otsego wisdom; “Otsego County conventional wisdom” is what he called it. And he went and he pulled my taps out. I’d gone back to Vermont for the week to go to work, and I’d call every day, calling down to see if the sap had run. I got back that next Friday night, and found that he had pulled all my taps. And he said “that’s when you traditionally pull them.” At that point I went out and re-drilled more trees, and I said, [laughs] “this is my show, and I didn’t tell you to do it.” I guess from there is when I took over. And so it grew and grew until I outgrew that evaporator and I burned it. My wife and I were out collecting one of the last days of the season, maybe about two years later, and on the way home from the woods, we were driving down the dirt road and the road’s a lot over from where my sugar house was at the time, and we could smell sugar in the air and it was burning. I jumped off the tractor and ran through the woods, and when I got there, there were flames coming out of the pans. The sugar had caught on fire, and that was the end of that pan. So that was the stimulus to buy a large commercial evaporator. And that’s when it kind of really got out of hand [laughs].

AD:
So you talked about inheriting a farm from your friend. Can you explain that a little bit?

BR:
Since I was probably about two years old, my friends Janet and Walter Gregg lived down the street from us in what we call Mill Hollow. They were a little bit older than my parents, well-to-do downstaters who owned a television production company and made commercials. But, my brother and I were like kids to them. And, they didn’t have any children of their own. And then Walter had moved on, and Janet had the farm, and she ended up passing away at a young age, late-60s. But she left the farm to my brother and I, and, let’s see, that was ten years ago now. So, about 2003, right? Yeah. About 2003 is when we inherited the farm. And that was 100 acres, two houses. On the 100 acres, there was probably 20 to 30 acres of forest, and that’s where I started trapping trees and putting my first tubing installations in sugar bushes. So [what] definitely enabled me to get this up and running is to have the woods and the barns [which] I was able to convert into the sugar houses.

AD:
And when did you make the decision to go from tapping trees as a hobby, a way to produce maple syrup for yourself, to doing it as a living?

BR:
So, [when] I really jumped into it full-time, big time, was about five years ago now. So that was 2008. I was superintendent of construction for an industrial construction company. We built food processing plants, factories, creameries, dairies, throughout the country, and also primarily in Vermont. So things like Cabot Creamery, Long Trail Ale, all the major foods that come out of that area, plus creameries around the country, and cement plants, hydroelectric dams. You name it, we built it. We took a huge hit from what they call the economic downturn. It hit us really hard. I had 75 men working for me, and within a matter of two or three months it was down to just five of us. And so at that point, I could see that my salary was bleeding the company pretty hard, and I opted out. I quit. We decided to move the family down here. The boss said that he’d keep us on for another five years, and he did. He kept a bunch of the guys on and they’re still going and they’re back up and running. But at that time, we were spending all of our weekends, all of our holidays, every vacation day and then some down here, building the infrastructure of the maple farm, growing it. So at that point, that summer, my wife Lisa she started looking for jobs and amazingly got two offers, one here at Bassett and one at SUNY Oneonta. And so she had two job offers, and she took one, and that was it. She took a job, and I gave my notice, and we moved down here that summer. It was tough, because like I said it was the economic downturn and it really hit places hard, like Vermont where we were living. And so our house, it took us a year and a half to sell the house. But that’s when I jumped into maple syrup full time. We had a tough couple of months until our first maple season when I could get my first real crop out of the woods. And we had a good year, and it worked out. At the same time I also had a small welding business out of my truck. So between the two I could scratch out a living, and over the past five years we’ve put in more and more taps, gotten more equipment, and it’s really grown into a successful small business.

AD:
And how supportive would you say was your family behind the decision to move away from Vermont and come try to start a new business in the Cooperstown area?

BR:
Lisa was very, very supporting and my children were too. We lived in a very small town up in the mountains. My daughter went to a school, K through 6, which had sixteen children. It was a nice experience, but the little things she was missing. She was excited for a school with a cafeteria, and a gymnasium, and a library. And it [meant] moving close to my parents, which was nice; having a little family support and having my kids grow up around some family. And Lisa loved it here. We really enjoyed Vermont; it was a great work environment, but this always felt like home, even to Lisa who was not from here. So, family support is the reason why I am here as a maple producer. My parents were taking the kids; my wife put up with me spending all of our money on the business and putting things off like new cars, just so that this can succeed. And that’s what it has taken. I could not have done it without family. My mother takes care of the kids and my father, I don’t have any employees, but he works his butt off for me seven days a week. Every day, he’s my partner. So, having that free labor, it’s made the family farm.

AD:
Can you tell me a little bit about the farm itself, and your daily operations and where you are located and things like that?

BR:
Daily operations really vary seasonally. So right now this is December. In a normal year, which this isn’t for me because we’re building a new facility, so right now my time is dedicated [there]; I spend 60 to 70 hours a week building the new building. But in the meantime, what I normally should be doing and what I still need to do is bottle the weekly maple syrup that I sell; trying to forecast what I sell every week and keeping that inventory bottled; making the confections that I make, maple cream, maple candy, maple sugar, all of the things that I sell at the markets; and marketing them, getting out to the farmers’ markets, the restaurants, and other outlets that purchase my maple products. That consumes the majority of my time; the selling, marketing, and packaging of the material of the maple products. And then also this time of year, I should be getting ready; I should be out in the woods. The way we gather our maple sap is through an infrastructure of tubes which is under vacuum during the season. It’s an airtight system; there can’t be any leaks, any holes. So it takes a tremendous amount of maintenance to find every little squirrel’s chew, every tree that’s dropped on the line, broken lines; maintaining that so every line is pitched perfectly and slopes downhill. So that’s this time of year, the fall and early winter. Come the first of January, we start looking for the traditional January thaw. Every year, without fail, nature gives us a week or two of good sugaring weather in January. And with new tapping-tree technologies we’re able to tap in January and keep our tapholes open through what’s traditionally the end of the season in the end of March and early April. So we have to get tapped in the first couple weeks of January. We’ll spend two to three weeks drilling all the trees and then waiting for the weather. And once January hits we’ll get our first couple of boils in. That’s when I kind of get a break; it’s my only break of the season, waiting for the next thaw, the actual traditional maple season which will be mid to late February and then March. So once March comes, that’s gangbusters for me all day, every day. There are a lot of days with very little sleep, where you’re up all night chasing lines, chasing tanks, making sure that sap tanks don’t overflow because sap on the ground is just money on the ground. So collecting every bit of sap that I possibly can, getting it to the sugar house, and then spending a few hours every day processing it. The processing is the easy part for us now; we can process a day’s worth of sap in three or four hours. [We make] sure that we take advantage of every possible opportunity to collect and make the syrup, because if you miss it, then you don’t get it back. Then once that season is over and we have our last boil, within a week, dad and I are back out in the woods cutting next year’s firewood. We still process our maple syrup with wood, over a wood-fired arch. So that takes dad and I probably four to six weeks of cutting and splitting wood. We try to do that before the hot weather of the summer. So between cutting wood and getting our gardens in, that’s where we spend the first part of summer. Then [it’s] right back into market season, where I’m bottling and making confections, cream, and sugar.

AD:
And can you tell me about the process of actually refining the maple syrup. You’ve talked about it a little bit, but sort of from the tree to the bottle.

BR:
Like I mentioned, we use vacuum to induce sap flow in the maple tree. We’re not necessarily sucking the maple sap out of the tree, but we are tricking the tree. The process in which maple sap flows in a tree is, in nature, if a low pressure system moves in…well, a tree is a sealed vessel, it’s like a sealed pipe, and as atmospheric pressure changes, pressures inside the tree change. If you put a pressure gauge on a tree, you’ll see it go from a negative vacuum to positive pressure. And when you have a low pressure system, a cloudy day or a rainy day, there isn’t much atmospheric pressure and the sap in the tree flows naturally. And so what we’re doing is we’re mimicking nature in that way by inducing vacuum and changing the atmospheric pressure inside the tree. That draws the sap out and through a series of tubes. You can imagine a river system; you have streams running into rivers running into lakes, and that’s pretty much the perfect analogy for our tubing system. Everything still flows downhill, from smaller tubes into bigger tubes, into bigger tubes and into tanks. Once the sap is in the tanks, and there is enough to collect, I drive around with my truck and I pump out the tanks and then bring it back to the sugar house. At the sugar house, there’s a series of several tanks that raw sap goes into, and once there’s enough raw sap, a couple of thousand gallons, I turn on my reverse osmosis machine. Now the reverse osmosis machine takes the maple sap, and it’s really a large filter. Under high pressure it’s able to separate and push through a filter water molecules which are smaller than a water molecule with the sugar attached to it. So my byproduct, my waste product, is pure water without any mineral or sugar attached to it. We save a couple of thousand gallons of that for cleaning purposes, because it’s a very, very soft water and good cleaning agent. Then the concentrated sap is pumped up to the evaporator feed tank. I concentrate my sap to about 15 percent sugar. What comes out of the tree for me typically is somewhere in the range of about 1.8 to, on a good day, two percent sugar. At that rate at two percent, it would take 46 gallons of maple sap to make a gallon of maple syrup. But when I reduce it or condense it to the 15 percent, now it only takes me seven gallons of that concentrate to make one gallon of maple syrup. So it dramatically reduces [the] energy inputs of my evaporator and [the] time that it requires me to boil my syrup. Once I have a tank full of concentrate, I fire up the evaporator and that machine processes the equivalent of probably a thousand gallons of sap an hour. So we make close to, [depending] on the day and the weather and everything, somewhere between 30 and 40 gallons of maple syrup an hour coming out of the machine. Because it comes so fast and heavy and hard, it goes right into a filter. It’s filtered and polished clean, and pumped into barrels where it’s later set aside. I grade it so I know what grade it is coming up for the day, and I have a log and keep track of it. The barrels are set aside in cold storage and as I need the syrup, and if I need a grade, I can just go to a barrel and I draw it out of the barrels and package it and process it into consumer packaging.

AD:
And how do modern production methods differ from traditional ones.

BR:
Okay, conventional Otsego tapping methods would, you know, a lot of new technologies have come around. The way I grew up I would consider a traditional method, where some folks had mechanical drills, or just using a braised bit to drill your tree and you put a 7/16 hole in the tree, which is a pretty good size hole, say like pinky-finger size. In the hole you would put what’s called a spile, which is really just a funnel, and that funnel has a hook on it that you connect the bucket to. And [from] the tree during those natural flow periods that I talked about, with a low pressure system or a west wind, the sap flows rather freely and a drip at a time into the bucket. Those buckets would be collected and boiled over directly the raw sap in the evaporator. And that’s a slow process; it takes 40 to 50 gallons of raw sap to make a gallon of maple syrup. That’s a lot of energy just to make a gallon of syrup and takes a lot of time. Now modern [methods], which we employ and have to I believe to make it profitable like any modern agriculture, employ the vacuum and we use much smaller tapholes, a 5/16 taphole, which is much healthier for a tree. The old 7/16 spiles would leave such a big wound that it would take a tree maybe two to three years to close that wound, whereas [with] our new smaller spiles, the tree will heal over in two to three months on its own. The spile that goes into the tree is actually a little, clear, polycarbonate check valve. This prevents the backflow of bacteria into a tree. You can really personify a tree. They’re much like a human, say, where when we drill a tree it’s like getting a cut, and the tree bleeds. Over a short period of time with a person or an animal, the wound clots and seals itself and closes. A tree does the identical thing; it just takes a couple of weeks for a tree to do it. The tree will sense the wound and sense bacteria, and it will close that portion of the wood off where you’ve drilled the hole. So in a traditional tapping method, within four or five weeks that tree will have compartmentalized that wood and it will no longer carry maple sap. With our modern tapping, the small check valves eliminate bacteria into the tree which is what triggers the tree to shut down. So we’re able to have these extended seasons and gather tremendous amounts more of the maple sap from the tree. Which always derives the question, “do we hurt the tree?” And no, not as of yet. We’re much healthier because we’re not allowing the bacteria into the tree, [we create] much smaller wounds that heal over, and we don’t see any diebacks from it. The trees are vigorous and healthy. So the modern tapping methods are just much more efficient. The series of tubes and rivers and streams that we create allows for several thousands of trees to be all connected to one central system, whereas going around tree to tree, getting the one bucket at a time is an extraordinarily laborious and time-consuming process.

AD:
So you talked about maintaining a good relationship with the land and keeping the trees healthy while also profiting from them. How important is that in your outlook on maple production?

BR:
It’s everything. If I didn’t have the trees, I couldn’t do this. We have to look at maintaining the forest, helping the trees where we can, thinning dieback trees, trees that aren’t healthy, and maintaining a biodiverse forest. I see this with some sugar bushes I tap where they would try to make them a monoculture of just sugar maples and you get disease in there. A few years ago we had the forest tent caterpillar that only eats maple trees, and when you have a monoculture of just sugar maples it’s just a target for them. But in my other forests, where you have hemlock and other species and [where] you encourage those other species, there weren’t any forest tent caterpillars. They don’t find them, and it was pretty clear to see that maintaining your forests and keeping the trees healthy [helps]. In older tap methods you would see growing up, people would put 4 or 5 of these large holes into a tree. Maybe not in your lifetime, but you’re killing the tree. And now that we only use one, and it takes a really big tree to put two taps into a tree, we really reduce our impact on them. I think we’re doing good things for them, and they continue to produce and produce well and grow well. So yes, being aware of overtapping and not hurting the trees is upmost critical. If we kill our trees, then we’re done.

AD:
Where are the trees located? I know you said you had some on your farm, but how widespread are the trees that you use?

BR:
On my own property I believe I have somewhere around 1,200 trees that I tap. And then within the valley that I tap, I go two miles to one ridgeline, and then a mile in the other direction. There’s about 3000 trees that I tap; 3,200 I believe. And then I also have people that bring me maple sap that I buy from, and that’s [from] as far as the far side of Hartwick. So we’re talking a good 12- to 14-mile radius that I draw from.

AD:
So obviously you get sap from trees other than your own, and you purchase it from other people. Do you think that this industry helps create community relationships between people that you live around?

BR:
Oh, absolutely. Maple syrup is one of those traditional things that, if you grew up in the maple belt, you would reminisce about it. And people really enjoy coming out to the sugar house; just smelling the sap boil, having the wood fire. It’s a real traditional community-building event. It’s unique to this region.

[START OF TRACK 2, 0:00:00]

BR:
We host our own maple weekend, where my local fire department has a pancake breakfast. And four or five of the other local sugar houses, all friends, we open up our doors and advertise it as an open house, even though we’re all always open. But it gives people an excuse to get out and as a community come out and drive around and visit all the sugar houses and see how we all do the same thing but just a little bit different, from different-sized producers.

AD:
Your website makes a point to talk about self-sufficiency and environmental consciousness in your maple production. How important are both these things to how you approach doing what you do?


BR:
I guess the self-sufficiency is just taking a lot of pride in building this farm without any [aid]. Well there’s help from my father, but financially we’ve not gone in debt. It’s all been cash on hand. Working for yourself takes a lot of pride. It drives my wife a little bit crazy that I work too much in that I do everything myself; micromanage I guess some people might call it. What was the other one?

AD:
Environmental consciousness.

BR:
Well, I make my living from a natural product; I make my living from nature. So environment’s everything. Being a steward to the land and making sure that you don’t impact the land adversely, from little things like which trees do you cut down to help the forest. If you cut the wrong trees, you’re going to kill other trees that you don’t want to. You don’t drive your vehicles in the forest and hurt the root structure. You don’t pollute. We have the threat in our area of natural gas drilling, specifically hydrofracking. And it really could be a negative impact on our environment. We see what they’ve done in Pennsylvania with chemical spill releases and contaminating our water systems. Now for me the maple sap comes from the water in the ground and the trees, what the roots of the trees eat. If our groundwater is contaminated, that kills our environment, kills our maple syrup, kills our farming; all [sacrificed] for cheap, quick energy. And those are things that we are actively against.

AD:
What is the maple syrup industry like in Otsego County?

BR:
It’s hard to call it an industry. There are probably hundreds of maple producers in the county. A lot of backyard [production] just like the way I grew up; families that make their own maple syrup. You get a little bit bigger where there are some producers with a couple of hundred taps. And then, in the county, there are four of us that I would say are commercial, that we make enough to make a living. Even though we all diversify a little bit, [we] actually are big enough that we could make our livings from it. It’s an untapped resource in this county and in the state. In New York State, it’s well publicized and well known; everywhere you look there’s maple trees and untapped potential. So many forests that go untapped that are just sitting dormant, and it’s a resource that we have. It’s a good industry to be in. If you can convince landowners to open up their forests for tapping, you could see the potential is huge for the industry in this area. If landowners could see the financial benefits from it…when I lease a forest, not only do they get rental income from me, but they get tax breaks for agricultural status, and the land will turn a profit for them rather than just being a tax burden.

AD:
And how important is it to stay connected with other producers or even people who don’t do it commercially, just to get that community of people who have the same interest?

BR:
I think it’s very important. Not only is it good community building, but for such an old, traditional method of extracting sugar, there are new technologies. You know in the past five or ten years since I’ve gotten into it, our ability to produce more and better syrup with the resources that we have has grown tremendously. So keeping in touch with the other producers, learning what everybody else is doing, [and] letting them learn from you, what you do. Going around to other sugar houses is a very popular thing amongst other sugar makers. During the maple season in my old sugar house, pretty far off the beaten path I’d say, so we don’t get a lot of drive-by say customers. If in a year I had 80 visitors, 75 of them were maple producers. We all really enjoy getting out, and if I get done with my boiling day, and it’s early enough, I’ll try to hit up a few sugar houses myself. And so [it’s a] good community.

AD:
What are some of the challenges of being a small local producer, and what are some of the rewards of being a small local producer?

BR:
The challenges are, like I say, everybody and somebody that you’re related to in the county makes maple syrup. So marketing and selling it is very challenging. What was the rest of it? Sorry.

AD:
Some of the rewards. What are the positives you take away from what you do?

BR:
Not many people get to do what they want to do, and I chose what I want to do. I get to live my dream. And that’s very rewarding. Being able to work from home, being able to meet my kids everyday at the school bus because I work from home, it gets me a lot closer to the family. And working from the land, that’s a thing [that is] coming back around, but it had started to fade once the dairy farm left the county. People don’t think that there’s agriculture [here], but maple and these small vegetable farmers and [a] lot of stuff is coming back, so it’s very rewarding being part of that community. And producing something as great as maple syrup [laughs], it’s a good product. It’s healthy, and with all the junk on the market today from high fructose corn syrup that your bodies [are] not able to process; we’ve got obesity problems because of that stuff. Whereas [with] your natural sugars, pure sucrose, nature built us to consume that. And you can tell in the taste.

AD:
Just turning towards general farming, what are your opinions about farming in America in the modern period, or even farming in New York State?

BR:
Farming’s a pretty broad term. In my mind, it’s a broad term. And so many people I think just associate farming with growing corn and milking cows. I do not like the farm subsidies that the big corn producers get for producing that high-fructose corn syrup and ethanol fuel. I understand we need to get away from fossil fuels but ethanol’s not the answer. Farming in the county, the dairy’s almost out, but it’s not [gone]. Those who hang on do a good job at it, the few and far between. When I was a boy, every house on my road was a farm and it was a dairy, and now there’s only one for about a 12-mile stretch. But now if you look at the valley, you see [that] every other farm or what used to be a farm now has some beef. And that’s nice. So we’ve got beef coming back, we have fields being worked again. And then there’s the other aspects of farming that aren’t milking and making corn. You’ve got the maple syrup; you’ve got some folks down the road from me that are making porridge now; you have the orchards, [and] honey. The CSA vegetable [farms], the Community Supported Agriculture farms, that are just producing enough vegetables for 25 to 30 families [are] making a pretty good living at that, and the same with the meat CSA farmers, doing the same things. Jellies and jams and honeys, there are so many facets of agriculture. There are the sheep farmers, and a lot of hobby farms that are actually realizing that they can do a little bit more with it and [that] if you market it appropriately, you can take your product to the consumer or value-added products and get your margins higher. You can make a living, and make an enjoyable living.

AD:
Getting back to something I wanted to talk about [earlier] was the USDA program that you’re part of, the REAP program. Can you just describe that a little bit? And what were your incentives were for trying to get that certification?

BR:
The REAP energy grant that I received, that’s when I was building the infrastructure. I was right in the transition of when I first went commercial and we’d moved back here to the county. I had already implemented reverse osmosis, and we just saw how it increased our productivity and saved so much energy and that’s what the REAP energy program was about, reducing your reliance on fossil fuels and reducing your energy inputs. And so what I needed to do and was going to do was expand my reverse osmosis system to be able to produce larger quantities faster. And so when I applied for REAP it was to expand my reverse osmosis machine. To do that you have to have an energy audit, where they look at the amount of fuel that you use, in my case it was wood, versus electricity and the cost of the machine. The machine costs as much as a pretty good sized car or truck, and the payback on the machine was going to be a 2.4-year return on that much money was how much fuel and energy we were saving. So that’s where the REAP energy grant came in. It wasn’t a tremendous amount; it was only 25 percent of the project that they paid for. But it was a nice one of those things that, as a small farm, that is a lot of money to help implement these projects. Some people say, “You’re taking money from the government, you can’t do that.” But the money’s out there, if you don’t take it somebody else will. And it helped me grow into where I am today, so I am grateful and thankful and I think it’s a fine program.

AD:
And why is there that belief that small producers shouldn’t take government money to help with their production? Is it a true aversion to the government, or is it just [that] you want to be your own boss, the self-sufficiency we talked about?

BR:
I guess I’m speculating on why I did get a lot of feedback from people that said that I shouldn’t do it. So, why? It would be a speculation, and I’d say that so many people for probably unwarranted reasons think you’re taxes are too high and [there’s] too much government involvement. I don’t know why REAP ever came around, but it’s here, so let’s take advantage of it. And let’s realize it is doing a good thing by reducing our carbon footprint. We’ve even had people argue with me that boiling with wood is carbon neutral, but it’s not. Yes [if] a tree falls in the wood it goes back to nature pretty quick; but when I burn a tree it goes back to nature in a matter of seconds. That carbon is rapidly released. In the history of the world, no, it maybe doesn’t make a difference compared to fossil fuels. I release a lot less carbon into the atmosphere because of the reverse osmosis, so we have reduced our carbon footprint tremendously. All things that you feel good about and [that] you’re happy to do.

AD:
You talked about building a new structure, a new building. Can you describe what you’re doing there and why you wanted to move to a new location?

BR:
The major impetus for the move was, as you learned earlier, my brother and I inherited the farm and the two houses and the barns and the acreage. And brothers are not meant to own things together; it does not work well. So we had finally agreed upon a split, and what my brother was taking was one of the houses and the barn which happened to be where my sugar house was. So, I guess when that all came about, when we finally agreed when the split would occur, I gave myself a two-year lease to get out of that current sugar house and build a new one. And last spring we had a pretty darn good maple season, so I had some equity going into this summer, and it’s really turned into quite the opportunity to build [a new sugar house]. My old sugar house was a barn that I converted into a maple production facility. Now I built a maple production facility specifically for producing maple products. Well thought out, well built, and with tremendous amounts of…I guess I’d call it ambience. It’s a beautiful barn; [a] hand-built, hand-hewn, mortise and tenon building that people just love to look at, including myself. And it’s also a functional food-processing plant at the same time. The flow of the building lends itself to making maple syrup. I built a basement into it so I have cold storage for sap and syrup. I have a great big evaporator room, wood storage, tank space, [and a] wash-down facility where I can wash the building down. So, it forced my hand and I’m very happy it did. Now I get my dream sugar house and I get to have built something which I don’t know that everybody gets to do. And there’s a lot of pride in building your own facility, especially the way that we did it, with my father and one other fellow. Working that closely with dad was terrific, and that we could actually take on a project of that size and accomplish it.

AD:
Your brother was obviously with you when you were little and, with your father,
you’d go and tap the trees. Is he involved at all at Mill Hollow or is that your own?

BR:
It’s all my own. My brother lives in Texas [laughs]. He could care less for the northeast. Why he wanted the rest of the property, I don’t know. I think it was probably out of spite; that’s how brothers are. And that’s the way things work. I’d offered to buy him out, and he could be done with the tax burden of all that land and houses. But he came back with me with me with the threat, “Well if you can afford to buy it all, why don’t you just buy a new one?” So I just took him on the challenge [laughs].

AD:
And you’ve talked about your father being with you building. How involved are your children and other members of your family? Do you see this being a family venture moving forward?

BR:
The way that Lisa and I have raised our children, we have never forced their hand to do anything they don’t want to do, be it sports [or] extracurricular activities. And I feel the same way with the maple. I hope and dream that maybe someday one of my children will want to work on the farm and continue this. And if they want to choose their own paths and live out their dream, I would understand that. I don’t think maple syrup was my father’s dream or is my father’s dream [laughs]. So at this time my kids call themselves the official taste testers and they’re happy to let me know that it’s terrific and they just might want to try a little more to make sure. But it does take a family to be able to do what I do, from my wife’s support to taking care of the kids and the house and everything else that I neglect just to be completely focused and dedicated at this work, which is required to be successful.

AD:
Are you ever, not bitter, but do you ever wish that you could spend a little bit more time outside of the maple production? Or is that something you see that might get better as you get more established in the future?

BR:
Yeah, exactly. Well, I don’t know. On my way over here today I was thinking, “Oh boy, this building will be done soon. And maybe next year I won’t have to spend money.” And then my truck’s getting old, and we’ll end up needing a new truck. I’ll want to put a new sugar bush in. Will it ever end? I don’t know, the spending. But that’s okay. I don’t mind, I think my wife does a little bit. It would be nice to make money for a year instead of spending everything we make. When you enjoy what you do, you don’t care. That’s why you work as hard as you do when you enjoy what you do and you get to do what you do.

AD:
What level of interest do you think there is locally, but also across the country, in terms of the maple syrup industry and maple syrup itself? Because it’s so easy to go buy the fake maple syrup in the store, do you think there is an interest in getting locally grown, real product?

BR:
Absolutely. That’s a huge movement right now, the locally [grown foods]. But like you say it’s a hard sell locally. But that’s the challenge. The maple syrup belt is very small geographically. It goes from West Virginia to Quebec. That’s not where we need to be selling our maple products. You have the rest of the country, the rest of the world, who are also right now embracing natural foods. The plant-based foods, from agave honey to honey to maple syrup [and] natural sweeteners; yes it’s a little pricey. But moving away from the high fructose corn syrup, and then you just can’t mimic or beat that flavor. I’m excited; that’s our challenge is getting out of the maple belt. Then the world’s ours to market and sell to.

AD:
What are some ways you might go about expanding your market base, your consumer
base?

BR:
Well, I’ve been more focused myself on growing my infrastructure and less on markets. They’ve been really growing organically and naturally for me. People recognize my product, and that’s an exponential thing. Once you have a costumer, if you make a good product, you don’t lose a costumer. And so that grows every year, and [we’re] also growing into other [products]. I met a gentleman yesterday who owns a milk plant, and they make butter and other products, and they make maple yogurt. But he’s already got someone who sells him the maple for the maple yogurt, so we talked about another new product. One of my favorite things, I have a restaurant that I sell to; they take my maple syrup and mix it with butter. And they have a maple butter that they put on the table for the pre-dinner bread. And I said, “Well we should work on a product like that.” So trying to develop a new product like that could use up a lot of my crop. I have another fellow who makes a product called kombucha, which is a fermented tea. And he has used me since the beginning as his sweetener, and I think he’ll always use me, and his business is growing exponentially too. As things like that grow, my markets grow, and as much as you can retail is the best, then I try to avoid wholesale. Maple’s one of the few agricultural products that’s special in that anybody can take [their] product to a wholesaler and sell it Monday through Friday, any week of the year. And you get not the best rate, but you can get rid of it and sell it and make a living if you had to. The goal is not to do that; the goal is to get your value-added and get your margins up as much as possible.

AD:
So you obviously go to a lot of farmers’ markets. Are you encouraged by the people you talk to and the interest levels you see in locally-grown places like that where they try to get that movement moving forward?

BR:
Absolutely. I do believe though that three or four years ago it was a little bit stronger than it is right now. That has faded off a little bit from the initial burst of the locavores. But yet, I see the markets, my farmers’ markets, where you’re selling directly to the consumer in your community. I have a small market I do down by me in Morris, and that is a consistent market for me [in] what my income is every week. But the costumers have changed. It’s not the same costumers I had four or five years ago. But yet the market stays steady. The challenge is how do I get the costumers I had four, three, and two years ago to come back all at the same time as this year’s costumers, and to get people to remember. But you asked about the locavore and yes, [it’s] very important. I had a costumer today who [was] somebody that I knew from a long time ago. And they had their young son with them, who was probably about 3 years old, and I offered them a piece of maple candy. “Could I give him one?” And they said no, he does not do well with sugar. And I said “what about natural sugars,” and they thought about it and said “well we don’t know so let’s try it.” So they took a piece of maple candy.

AD:
Is there anything else you’d like to add, anything I didn’t ask you, or anything you wanted to talk about?

BR:
I don’t know. I guess not.

AD:
No, that’s fine. We’ve been talking for just about an hour now, so if you have nothing else to add, I think we’ll call that an interview.

BR:
Okay.

AD:
I just want to thank you again for being a part of this program. And it was very nice to talk to you.

BR:
Great, thank you, Alex.

[END OF INTERVIEW, 0:56:12]

Duration

0:30:00 - Track 1
0:26:12 - Track 2

Bit Rate/Frequency

128 kbps

Files

Citation

Alexander Dubois, “Brian Ryther, November 30, 2013,” CGP Community Stories, accessed November 17, 2018, http://cgpcommunitystories.org/items/show/155.