They say money doesn’t grow on trees, but Marty Wendel knows better.
On his family’s spread in East Concord, Wendel has been wringing dollars out of sugar maple sap for 45 years, ever since his dad told his 10-year-old self that if he wanted money for a minibike, “I’d have to earn it.”
So he borrowed some buckets and got to work. He knew how to work because he was the son of a poultry farmer, raising chickens and turkeys for the Buffalo marketplace. He boiled the sap on the kitchen stove, and that’s a lot of steam when it takes 40 or 50 gallons of sap to reduce down to a gallon of syrup.
“I got kicked out because I boiled her wallpaper off the walls,” Wendel says with a chuckle. “Three or four years later I got kicked out of the basement, and really got started.”
This Saturday, when Maple Weekend starts, the Wendels are going to show crowds of maple tourists how far they’ve come. The annual celebration and open house for local maple syrup makers actually spreads over two weekends, Saturday and Sunday and March 23-24. More than 30 places in Western New York alone will show how they spin sap into amber, many with pancake breakfasts, hayrides and other activities planned. (List below. See MapleWeekend.com for complete details.)
A year past the worst syrup season in recent memory, Marty and his son Nick are firing up what might be the baddest hot rod of a syrup evaporator around, a dreadnought of the local maple flotilla. They plan to feed it 10,000 gallons of tree juice a day with the help of other family members, a squad of nephews and more local kids.
They need dirt-bike money, or close enough, and you don’t think Marty Wendel’s just going to give it to them, do you?
Wendel’s brand new sugarhouse (12502 Vaughn St., East Concord, wendelspoultry.com, 592-2299) isn’t going to be complete till next season, but it’s still a sight to behold.
He and his family built the place with their own hands, and they’re still about $150,000 in, including equipment, Wendel said. That doesn’t count probably $100,000 in labor from family and friends like John Faulring, a semiretired maple guy, who’s been doing finish carpentry there for the last month to spruce the place up for Maple Weekend.
Most of the wood is larch, Wendel said, but the central room will be paneled in maple cut from tapped trees, pocked with tap marks. The place is meant to be a temple to the maple arts, and during Maple Weekend there will be plenty of maple cream, maple sugar and maple-glazed peanuts to sample, and hayrides into the woods to see the bucket-hangers at work.
One side of the new building is Nick Wendel’s mapling supply store, with a whole lot more than taps, drill bits and buckets. He stocks everything from table-size evaporators pitched to the one-person hobbyist operation to the dizzying array of plumbing fixtures needed to create modern vacuum systems, which suck the syrup through miles of plastic tubing to a collection vat.
There are also reverse osmosis machines, which press half the water out of sap before it hits the boiler. With fuel oil at $4 a gallon, straight boiling on a stock evaporator would put maple syrup at $16 to $18 a gallon to produce, Wendel said. “With this,” he said, nodding at his heavily modified evaporator, “it costs us about $4.”
At the heart of the Wendel’s maple palace is a gleaming stainless steel apparatus 16 feet long and almost as tall, designed with all the cunning the Wendels could muster. Ask Marty if it’s the biggest one around and he’ll defer to Adirondack operations, or the Quebecois. “If this is a dreadnought,” he said, “those are Death Stars.”
Inside the Wendels’ evaporator is a series of baffles and pans designed to separate water molecules from sugar solution with maximum speed and minimum energy. It’s mostly off-the-shelf technology, but the Wendels added some of their own ideas, enough that you have to sign a nondisclosure agreement for Marty to explain them fully.
Next year, the second-story observation deck will be complete, and sightseers will be able to peer into the heart of the boiler through the observation ports.
“If you open the doors you’ll be able to see the sap boiling,” said Wendel. “When we open the doors up, we can close a valve and pound the steam in here to involve your senses, your nose, your eyes – all your senses will be involved here.”
Next year. This is the second job for the Wendels after all, the project they work on when the poultry are cared for and it’s too dark in the woods to see your hands. “We work on it every day and night that we can,” Wendel said.
Son Nick shrugs off the mention of hours.
“As far as this business, any type of farming, it’s hard to make it on just farming alone,” he said. “You have to have an added income, and this is my added income.” For the last year, he’s spent practically every night working toward this.
Complain about maple? “It’s my favorite time of year, actually,” Nick Wendel said. “I was born into it.”
His dad likes to talk maple, but Nick likes to remind Marty that he’s spent only 45 of his 55 years in maple. Nick is 26 for 26 and counting.
“That’s the one thing I got over him; I was born in September, and in February I was in the sugarhouse. Granted, I wasn’t a year old, and I was in a car seat the whole time, but I’ve been in the sugarhouse every year of my life,” he said with a grin.
“I just basically grew into it. As soon as I was able to be out collecting buckets, even if I was just bringing empties to other guys, I was in the woods.”
Maple producers spend 50 weeks scheming and investing, developing their strategies and tools to make the most of whatever Mother Nature deals out. They pray for the weather others hate, then deal with it. “If we keep getting these cold nasty little storms? That’s exactly what us maple guys like to see,” Marty Wendel said. “We like to see it get down to the teens for a few days, then warm up to 45 for a few days. That up and down swing is what we’re looking for.”
Last year featured a week of 80-degree weather, he said, and by March 15 “it was done.” But the Wendels had already broken ground on the new maple palace, doubling down on their family’s future in the maple business.
“I’m investing in the future of maple, but I’m also investing in the future generations of this family,” Marty Wendel said. “Not just Nick, but his kids. Because my grandfather moved out here in 1945, investing in the next generation, my dad, and [he] indirectly invested in my generation.”
The maple palace isn’t his, he insisted. “This has been a family effort right from the start. If I’m out here working it’s because my brother Dave gave me the time to spend here. My wife, my sister, my sister-in-law, they back me up on the poultry business so I can be out here.”
They’ve given Wendel the time to look at the future of maple, and he likes what he sees.
The maple market is growing by 10 percent a year, from factors including a growing Asian market, he said. “Japan likes maple syrup, and they can’t make any,” he said, and that goes for China, and much of Asia, too. “They’re driving the market.”
So yes, you can sell all the syrup you can make, he said. But at what price? “Look at all the dairy farmers who can certainly sell every gallon of milk they produce, but not necessarily for any profit at all,” he said.
That’s why Wendel’s place, East Concord’s Taj Mapal, is “built for retail agritourism,” he said. “My goal is to sell syrup here by the jug. I don’t care if it’s a gallon or a 100-milliliter container. It’s a lot more work, and a lot more investment, but it’ll come back to you.”
The Wendels might have mud on their boots, but they’re no dummies. In 1977, they built their own processing plant for their poultry business, an investment that’s helped his family breathe financially.
“Before that we only had three or four people we sold them to, in the city,” said Marty Wendel. “They dictated what we would pay. Now it’s what the market will bear.”
He sighed. He sure would have liked to get the place done before Saturday. “When you do things yourself and only have four to six hours a day to work on it, and most of that is after 6, you do what you can,” he said. “Every Saturday, Sunday, weeknight we’re in here. I’m starting to get a little tired of it, but I can see the light at the end of the tunnel and that makes me drive harder.”
Yet somehow Wendel and his family found the time to plant more than 200 maple trees on their land. Another investment, Wendel shrugged. “The thought is that the next generations will have trees to tap, and they can say that their father and grandfather planted them.”