A reporter caught them at lunchtime and with the graciousness of those accustomed to a tight-knit rural community, Lyle and Dottie Merle spent the next couple of hours chatting about their maple farm.
During the annual Ag Awards dinner Saturday evening, Lyle and Dottie were the recipients of the Wyoming County Chamber & Tourism Agribusiness of the Year Award for 2017.
“The annual agribusiness award is given to a business that exemplifies the following criteria: contributions to the economic vitality and quality of life of Wyoming County, capital investments, business expansions, job growth, community involvement, and their contributions that strengthen their industry sector,” said Chamber President Scott Gardner.
Merle (pronounced Mer-Lee) Maple Farm began around the 1870s with the “farm up the hill,” Lyle says.
The farm “up the hill” was located on Merle Road off Merkle Road in Attica. Although the farm was lost during the depression, their current farm, on Route 98 in Attica, well, “technically the Town of Bennington, with an Attica address, but with a Varysburg phone number,” has been in use since then. And it’s a good thing too, Lyle had said, because “fortunate for us, sap runs down – his family hails from both France and England – he is the fourth generation, of the six generations of Merles involved in agriculture, on the maple side of farming.
“When I was still in high school, my dad gave me the option of going to school (college) or continue on the farm,” Lyle said. “I opted to continue the tradition of making syrup.”
As with many of those who are self-employed, Lyle went to the “school of hard knocks,” learning the family business by virtue of growing up with parents who have carved out a niche by the sweat of their brow and determination.
“My dad was quite creative and innovative and involved in the cutting edge of the industry. I guess I inherited that from him.”
Lyle not only owns and operates the maple farm, he is also on the Cornell University advisory committee for New York State, as well as a delegate for the State’s International Maple Syrup Institute.
Merle Maple Farm has received a number of Best in Show ribbons for its maple syrup at the New York State Fair. And it was one of the very first maple producers to be listed with the Taste of New York tourism campaign, which featured their products at Taste of NY kiosks up and down the NYS Thruway.
Additionally, the Merles received the Maple Producer of the Year award in 2007. In 1988, Lyle’s father, Arthur, was inducted into the Maple Hall of Fame, and received the Hubbell Award by the New York State Department of Ag and Markets, which acknowledged their work to further education of maple sugaring.
Maple season typically begins in January with the season occasionally lasting until April 15, but is entirely weather dependent. While tapping can be done anytime the temperature rises above freezing, it’s the overnight temperatures that ensure a lengthy season. When it freezes overnight the tree draws up the sap from the roots. Anytime you have cold weather you can tap, but it has to be consistently cold at least a week or the syrup has a different flavor. Depending on the type of weather you have that season can also change the flavor of the syrup. Once the weather consistently stays above freezing both during the day and overnight, tapping is finished.
“The season is typically 25 days, but in those 25 days it’s pretty close to a 24-hour operation.”
When the Merle family began tapping, they never had more than 1,000 buckets to catch the sap and they used horse-drawn carriages to collect the buckets. That all changed with they began to use a tubbing system in 1958.
About 10 years ago about a quart of sap a day was harvested from the trees, which produced about 4,200 gallons of syrup a day. To further increase production, they now use a reverse-osmosis process and vacuum pumps to extract and process the sap.
The Merles have approximately 17,000 taps and at least 100 miles of line on the 400-acre farm. Of those taps, 4,500 run directly into the tap house, the remaining run into holding tanks scattered throughout the property. The sap is then collected and brought to the storage tanks at the tap house.
Generally speaking, it takes approximately 50 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. On any given day, the farm produces two gallons of syrup a day per tap, which equates to approximately 20,000 gallons of sap a day to produce around 400 gallons of syrup a day. That’s about 8,500 gallons of syrup in one season.
In addition to the syrup production, the farm also makes sugar, spreads, candies, gummy leaves, and even barbecue sauce. To make the value added products it takes approximately 400 gallons of syrup to make sugar, 800 gallons for the maple spread, and 1,600 gallons for the candies.
When asked how they keep up with production, Lyle’s answer was an easy “Well, there’s 24 hours in a day…”
Operating one’s own business is no easy task, but they “do what it takes to get the job done.” With 15 employees – mostly part-time – Lyle says a typical day begins around 6:30 a.m.. And while his 102-year-old mother, Florence, still gets up and helps when she can, he said – with tongue-in-cheek – “since she turned 100, it was tough to get a full day's work out of her.”
Although working in the woods is taxing, Lyle said he has no desire to retire and “shuffle cards in Florida.”
“Many people may think we (business owners) only work half a day. And really, that’s true, it just depends on which 12 hours it is. Many people don’t get the opportunity to be a part of a family business, I’ve been fortunate in that department.”
One of the most rewarding experiences Lyle has with working and owning the Maple Farm is that he is able to create new products and able to keep ahead of the industry. He also enjoys the value of Maple Weekend, which he says he is able to educate the general public about the maple industry and how it has evolved over the years.
A few of the innovative changes he has made to the business is the use of UV lighting which sterilizes the sap to allows them to keep the sap longer before processing without losing the quality of the product. The advances in how the sap is boiled has also allowed the company to produce more with using less energy. For example, instead of using wood to boil the sap they use fuel oil. Even with the use of fuel oil, Lyle has developed a way to use less fuel oil for boiling now than was used in years past.
“It used to take four gallons of fuel oil for every gallon of syrup made. Now it takes one gallon of fuel oil for processing. We are doing our part to be green and produce for efficiency.”
itstheir consumption of fuel oil, they also replace trees that are too old or have been damaged in some way for use. Additionally, Lyle “thins” the woods to allow for better growth of mature trees. A tree has to be about 30 years old for it to be tapped. Some of the trees he currently taps are around 100 years old. However, even with the thinning of the woods, he is conscientious in replacing the trees he removes with new ones.
Sprawling over the land across the road, one can notice several dozen saplings planted for use for future generations, and as he says he likes “watching the trees grow.”
“What can I say, I like to plant trees. They don’t argue and you don’t have to send them to college. Some of those trees will be around 100 years after we are gone.”
In addition to developing better practices to increase productivity, the couple has developed a barbecue sauce recipe with no corn syrup in it. Dottie is certified to make acidified products – barbecue and hot sauce fall into this category.
Ever thinking of new products to make, the Merle’s decided to try their hand at making gummy leaves.
“The first batch didn’t have the right consistency,” Dottie said. “We needed to find a way to make the product not quite as sticky.”
Working with students from the food science class at Cornell University, they have developed a better consistency for the product.
“Farmers don’t do it all by themselves,” Lyle said. “It also takes engineers that have developed the technology to help us advance in our field.”
Maple syrup is only produced in the northeastern part of the United States and Canada. And while there is a bit of “friendly competition” between the States and its northern counterpart, the demand for maple products has a growth rate of about 10 percent per year.
“Fifty years ago it was a 24 million pound worldwide market for maple products. Today, it has grown to about 170 million pounds,” Lyle said. “We in the industry feel that we can grow to 300 million pounds worldwide. People in Quebec (Canada), use maple products seven times more than we do here and live three years longer. I just think we need to use more maple products.
“We work to educate the consumer, because when you grow up in the field, it becomes second nature.”
As Lyle says, our customers don’t necessarily have to be our neighbors, a developed area to a farmer is an acre of woods or corn or wheat, because cities, well, they are “customer storage units.”
“I was told way back when that Western New York was a leader in agriculture. The reason we are leading is because we work with our neighbors and share ideas and knowledge. In a conversation, you always get something out of it. You may be giving away information, but you’re always getting something back.”
Lyle and Dottie have both contributed many hours and a great deal of maple products at various conferences and workshops, with the aim of helping other maple producers learn to make better maple, create a better value added maple product, and even the marketing and improvement of a maple display.
Last fall Lyle and Dottie hosted a value-added workshop at their maple kitchens, with the help of Eileen Downs and NYS Maple Specialist Steve Childs. Several batches of syrup were cooked for melt-in-your-mouth maple sugar pieces, including cinnamon flavored and cinnamon cream, and granulated maple syrup.
“A group came from Michigan to learn how to make a maple product. And the universal comment was that ‘no one would ever show us how to do this back home.’ But that’s the way it is here, not just in the maple business, but across agriculture in all of Western New York,” Lyle said. “If you get into other areas of the state, you may find a different view, but here, we believe in all boats rising.”
Even though Lyle and his brothers are no longer in business together – they had a combined farm that included some crops and cows – they still all support each other. During maple weekend, a patron may find at least 30 members of the Merle family working in some capacity to assist the 3,000 people that visit the farm during the event. And even though some of those who help during the two-day affair aren’t blood related, to the Merles, they are still family.
Maple Weekend will be held March 18 and 19, and 25 and 26.
For more information about Merle Maple Farm visit http://www.merlemaple.com/ or their Facebook page.