By Rachel Dutil | Photo Supplied
Issue: February 2022
Ten years ago, Michael Parker decided to go all in to maple. While the family’s farm had been both a dairy and a maple farm for decades, he observed, “The future of dairy didn’t look like it was there for a 50-cow operation.” Since that pivotal decision, Parker Family Maple Farm has grown from 18,000 to 140,000 taps and from two employees to 15. Michael and his wife, Laura, are the fourth generation to operate the family business.
130 YEARS IN BUSINESS
Adolphus and Amelia Parker immigrated to the United States from Canada in 1884. They purchased one acre in West Chazy and continued to run the home farm in Canada. When they could afford to, they purchased an additional 60 acres which allowed them to start a dairy farm and maple operation with 4,000 buckets. Their son, Pearlie, made the switch to steel buckets and later aluminum buckets. Michael recalled that Grandfather Pearlie fashioned a gas-powered tapping device out of a washing machine engine and a cable from his cow clippers in the 1940s.
Michael’s father, Earl Parker, took over the business in the 1960s. He built a new sugarhouse in the early 1970s, relocating it from the woods to right along Slosson Road in West Chazy. Michael explained his father wanted to build the sugarhouse “so close to the road that people couldn’t resist stopping in when the steam is rising” from the chimney.
By the time Michael was 13, he knew he wanted to be involved in the family business. Beekmantown High School – where Michael attended – had an arrangement with what is now Northern Adirondack
Central School to bus students to the Ellenburg campus to participate in an agriculture program run by Homer Bushey. He credits the program and Bushey with helping to develop his business acumen.
Maple season comes every spring when temperatures rise above freezing during the day, allowing the sap to thaw and flow through the trees. In most years, there is a “January thaw” where temperatures rise to 40 degrees or more for a few days and maple producers get an early run of sap. The busiest part of season typically comes in mid- to late-March through April. After that, when temperatures warm to the point that the trees start to bud, the season comes to an end as the quality of the sap changes and the syrup flavor deteriorates.
In the early days of maple syrup production, sap was collected in buckets hung on each maple tree. The development of tubing systems was a significant advancement for the industry, drastically reducing the workload of collecting the sap. Parker Family Maple Farm was one of the first local maple farms to install tubing in the 1950s. Earl worked with Cornell University to develop test plots on the farm, aiding in research that helped move the industry forward.
Earl installed the first Reverse Osmosis (RO) machine at the farm in 1985. “He’s never been afraid of new technology,” Michael said of his father. Maple sap is about 98 percent water and two percent
sugar. Historically, the water was boiled off while making syrup. With the development of the RO system 90-95 percent of the water is removed which creates a more concentrated sap. “It speeds up the process and increases efficiency,” Michael explained. “It used to take four to five gallons of fuel oil to make a gallon of syrup. Now it takes less than a half-gallon.”
The current RO machine at Parker Family Maple Farm is fully automated. There are 30,000 trees right around the sugarhouse that feed into a silo. When the silo is full of sap, the RO turns on, operates, does a wash cycle and turns off automatically. “I can look at an app on my phone and make sure everything is doing what it’s supposed to do,” Michael said. Laura added, “Sugar makers don’t have to sleep next to the RO machine anymore.”
Remote monitoring equipment is another advancement that has transformed the maple sugar business. The technology came out about 10 years ago and as soon as the Parkers saw it, they knew it was something they needed. A sensor is placed in each section of the woods and information is transmitted to an app which displays whether the sap is running, what the temperature is and the vacuum level. If there is a problem, the system can pinpoint the location. “That has allowed us to be more precise in our operation so that we don’t send people out aimlessly. We can go where we need to be,” Michael observed.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, maple syrup from the North Country was shipped in barrels by train. “My dad started a revolution by marketing his own syrup,” Michael explained. “He decided he wanted to sell syrup instead of paying someone else to sell it.” Laura observed that Earl was the first local producer to place an ad in the newspaper inviting people to visit the sugarhouse during maple season – pre-dating New York State’s popular Maple Weekend events. “People thought he was crazy and wasting his money,” she said, “but it worked.”
In 1995 Earl was producing about 2,000 gallons of syrup and was selling more than double that, which meant he needed to buy syrup from other local producers. “He outgrew his own production,” Michael said proudly. “That’s when he started expanding. Our business moto has always been ‘Be adaptive’. That’s how we’ve survived and grown.” In 2022 Michael expects to produce between 60 and 70,000 gallons of the delicious syrup.
In recent years Parker Maple Farm added a forestry division and a trucking operation. When Michael purchased logging equipment for his own property, he recognized a business opportunity to work for others. “We offer turnkey operations,” he said, “We’ll come in, log your forest and then come back and put tubing in, install the pumps and pumphouses, build the sugarhouse and sell and install all the necessary equipment.”
Parker Farm also has a fleet of large trucks to haul sap and maple syrup. “In order to make it affordable to own these trucks, we need to keep them working year-round,” Laura explained, adding that the state requires special licensing and permits to run the heavy machinery. The trucking arm of the business moves construction equipment, logs, maple equipment, and materials like topsoil, gravel, and stone.
Parker Family Maple Farm now features a new sugarhouse with an attached gift shop where visitors can purchase a wide array of maple products and witness how syrup is made during Maple Weekend events in March. A nearby pavilion hosts pancake breakfasts and can be rented out for private parties and events. They also have an onsite maple equipment store. The old dairy barn has been transformed into a maple warehouse, storing barrels of syrup from the home farm and from other local producers. The farm has had a website and an online store since the 1990s. Products from Parker Family Maple Farm are shipped worldwide.
Events held at the farm are truly a family affair and extended family and friends are always on hand to serve up maple treats and lead tours of the sugarhouse. Joshua and Samantha Parker, Michael and Laura’s teenaged children, are developing related business interests. Joshua is taking culinary courses at CV-TEC and Samantha is in a welding program and is interested in the mechanical side of the business. “We’re giving them a great opportunity if they want it,” Michael said of his children someday taking over the business, although he added he does not push them. “I don’t want to work this hard forever, but I love what I do,” Michael concluded.
Parker Family Maple Farm
1043 Slosson Rd.
West Chazy, NY