Hell-bent on rebutting a business-minded family member who didn’t think he could make it (no kidding! Read on), Josh Dolan founded Sapsquatch Pure Maple Syrup four years ago and never looked back. As a sugarmaker with an intimate connection to the land, he has become an outspoken activist against hydraulic fracturing (aka fracking) in New York State. Back in December, he expressed these views during his comment at a public hearing on the proposed regulations that will govern fracking. As soon as I heard the battle cry, “Tap Maples, not Marcellus!” I knew I had to get the scoop.
Can you tell us the history of Sapsquatch Sugarbush and how you came to the maple syrup business? Is your family involved?
Sapsquatch has been in existence since the late winter of 2008, so this will be our 5th year in business. Sapsquatch arose out of a long-running family debate. My wife’s uncle and I had been having a discussion about agriculture, he from a business perspective and me from a deep sustainability ethic. After more than a year of debating, he basically told me to put my money where my mouth is and convinced me to start sugaring on his property outside Ithaca.
The first season was totally bare bones; just me and the evaporator out in the woods, a tank to catch the sap and some used sap lines scavenged from a sugarbush in Norwich, New York. Thanks to incredible community support and a few dedicated individuals, we constructed a sugarshack in the woods. This year, we will be launching an Indiegogo campaign to put walls on the shack, upgrade equipment and construct a kitchen to make the whole operation a bit more friendly to visitors and create a space for education and community events. My brother and I currently run the operation. I didn’t know this when I started this venture, but my great-Grandfather Fox used to make maple syrup back in North Cohocton, near where my parents grew up, and Grandma Fox would finish it up in the kitchen. She passed away on April 1, 1979 in the kitchen after just having finished canning the last of that year’s maple. So it has become a bit of a spiritual thing for me and a way to honor my ancestors.
What is a typical day at Sapsquatch during the harvesting season?
A sugaring day typically involves a trip out to Enfield on the bus (so I can leave my wife with the car) and a ½ ; mile walk out to the bush. I live downtown [Ithaca] and feel really lucky to have a place to call home out in the woods. I boil when the tanks are as close to full as possible to get the most out of my time and my wood.
It’s more efficient to boil 800 gallons of sap at one time than to light two or three separate fires and boil as it runs. I try to get the fire lit as soon after I arrive as possible, because I know I'll be boiling all night anyway. After the fire is lit, I have a window before the boil really picks up when I can walk the lines, collect sap from hanging buckets and maybe chop some wood. In about two to three hours, I'm ready to start drawing off syrup.
When syrup has been drawn, I alternate between feeding the fire, catching up on chores, fixing some food and generally trying to keep busy. It’s a long drawn out process and I have ADD, so it helps if I have lots of little tasks to take care of throughout the day. If in doubt, I cut, chop and stack wood. I try to finish and bottle as much syrup as possible while boiling, but it can be a challenge on my own, keeping an eye on evaporator and finishing unit at one time. You can never have enough wood put away for next season.
When night rolls around, I settle in and wait to see who might turn up to keep me company. Sometimes it’s just me and my brother-in-law, but most boiling nights we tend to attract a crowd of maple enthusiasts, friends and curiosity seekers. If it’s a weekend, we usually try to have a boiling party. The longer we can keep people hanging out, the less time we have to try to stay awake alone. A boil will usually run 30+ hours, so if I light the fire at 10am Saturday, I'll be done around 4pm on Sunday. I catch about 4 hours of sleep while the in-law keeps an eye on things, but otherwise, that is time spent on my feet.
What have you noticed firsthand to be the effect of climate change on maple syrup production?
I personally haven’t been involved in sugaring long enough to know the difference between a great season and a terrible one. Every year is different when it comes to the weather. This year has been a big wake-up for a lot of folks in the northern states as temperatures have been up to 40 or even 50 degrees warmer than normal in January. I'm guessing this year is going to be a short sugaring season, and from what I've read, this will have the affect of weakening the sugar content of sap, meaning more boiling time and more wood burned. I guess we can only wait and see.
You're very involved with Occupy Ithaca and the fight against hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in New York State. Can you give us an update on this progress and its potential effect on your business?
The anti-fracktivists (as we've been calling ourselves) have been able to tie this up in New York for over three years now and raised the debate to a level in the state where you would have to be living under a rock to not know about fracking. The rise of Occupy Wall Street has given me hope that the people of this state are now too savvy and too angry to be fleeced by either the gas companies or the state government. If it comes down to it, I have faith that there will be a environmental defense campaign of a scale we have not seen in the US, complete with tree sits, road blockades and massive protests in the state capital. Governor Cuomo didn’t even mention fracking in his state of the state (of the union) address, the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is reviewing the massive amount of comments submitted about flaws in the Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS) and there has been a concerted effort to strike fear into the hearts of all of our state politicians. I think we have achance to win now that folks down in New York City are getting involved, especially high profile folks like Mark Ruffalo and Mario Batali.
If fracking does happen, it will be a disaster for the Upstate economy. Our wine industry is one of the cornerstones of our tourism, linked to the incredible scenic beauty of the Finger Lakes. The organic farming industry centered around Ithaca is also dependant on both tourism and the conscious consumers who have relocated here. There will be a mass exodus from the area if it becomes industrialized by fracking. Tourists will stop coming and the emerging markets in NYC will dry up as consumer confidence in our agriculture disappears. I'll be brushing up on my French and trying to sneak my evaporator across the Canadian border into Quebec.
Why did you decide to use the CSA model to sell your maple syrup?
I'm a community-minded guy and this is a new model for selling syrup. I am an innovator and I want to blaze new territory with everything that I'm involved in. Especially now in an era when we don’t know the future of sugaring, it is highly important for the community to support farmers, especially sugarmakers, who are like the polar bear of farmers, a dying breed. This model enables me to build relationships with consumers and offer educations and sugaring culture to the uninitiated. It’s a win-win.
Is there anything else you would like us to know about climate change, fracking or how to bring more awareness of the importance of domestic maple syrup production in the US?
NY used to be the number one syrup producing state in the number one syrup producing country, and we could be again. We have only tapped 2% of our tap-ready maples here, so there is tremendous potential to increase production at a time when there is a resurgence of interest in this industry and our beloved product and a chronic shortage. Maple production could also be linked with energy production in the form of biogas/biomass. In China, there are great examples of home, farm and community scale energy production using wood and crop residues as fuel. Investing in this industry known for innovation, with a mandate to also produce energy, could kick start the stagnant economy of the Northeast, generate huge amounts of tourism and engage a whole new generation in this ancient art. Fracking and climate change are putting our future at risk, but maple syrup could become the lynchpin issue that finally convinces people to turn this ship around.
Do you have a favorite maple syrup recipe or a favorite way to eat maple syrup?
I'm a traditionalist and stick with Grandma Fox’s pancakes and maple syrup. I use it most in my coffee, though, as I've been trying to substitute maple for cane sugar. I also make a mean maple tamari dressing. My philosophy is that almost everything is better with maple.
We have been having a friendly debate in the office about which is tastiest according to the US maple syrup grading system (Grade A Light Amber,Grade A Medium Amber, Grade A Dark Amber, Grade B). Do you have a preference?
Grade B; maximum nutrition, maximum flavor.
Over the years, what has surprised you about the maple syrup business?
I'm surprised I'm still at it…it’s addictive. It’s really demanding physically, spiritually, emotionally, it’s hard on the family with me being away so much. But this is how I get my exercise in the winter, when everybody else is getting flabby, I'm getting fit. Being outdoors in February is a great way for me to stay sane and keep from getting the winter blues. It’s also surprising how much work goes into each drop. From felling, cutting, gathering, chopping and stacking wood, to boiling and bottling to hustling, it takes a lot of work. On a small scale, it’s hard to make a profit. I don’t think people realize what goes into it.
Can you talk about the importance of real maple syrup (as opposed to commercial brands that are completely made of additives such as corn syrup and artificial flavoring?)
Table syrup is a sick joke. It’s full of GMOs, bad sugar, and it tastes like crap (I won’t even get into how racist Aunt Jemima is). Maple syrup comes from a tree and is guilt-free. There’s no question about whether there are some poor farmers working in slave-like conditions working in the cane fields of the Dominican Republic. In fact, maple got its first big boost from the abolitionists who would did not want to support British plantation sugar. You know that sugarmakers are doing it for the love of it. You also know that sugarmakers are probably taking pretty good care of their woods, because if they didn’t, they would be out of business. Health-wise, maple syrup is health wise. It is full of vitamins, minerals and amino-acids. There are over 50 beneficial compounds found in maple syrup, it has been used in anti-cancer treatments, dieting, and it’s ok for diabetics. I can’t think of another food with so much going for it!
We couldn’t agree more! You can count on us to support sustainable sugarmakers. For more information and pricing of the Sapsquatch CSA, go here.