North Country’s biggest syrup producer rebrands this small hamlet
By Neal Burdick
Those familiar with Lyon Mountain’s history associate the community with a certain “m” word: mining. But the iron mines, once among the most productive in the world, shut down in the late 1960s. Gone were the rumbling D&H ore trains, the school (it was converted to a prison, but that too eventually closed) and the jobs filled by one of the most ethnically diverse small-town populations in New York.
Up the side of its eponymous mountain, decaying gray mine structures and gray tailings piles sprouting scraggly trees loomed like vultures over the main drag lined with look-alike company houses. The “m” word for Lyon Mountain became “moribund.”
Fast forward 50 years, and there’s a new “m” word in town: maple. The place once famous for extracting iron ore from the ground to be made into steel is today becoming known for extracting sap from sugar maples, to be made into comestibles that are much gentler on the senses than iron ore ever was.
It’s not just maple. It’s birch syrup, and walnut and beech and butternut and, perhaps someday soon, linden (aka basswood) syrups. They even harvest 5,000 pounds of leek leaves, for spices.
All this is the brainchild of Michael Farrell. A laser-focused, occasionally intense but always cordial man of 44, Farrell is the founder and driving force behind a two-pronged operation, The Forest Farmers and New Leaf Tree Syrups. The latter is his brand—“syrups” is plural, and “maple” doesn’t appear—while the former is his research branch.
Research—that’s where this all began, and it’s the engine that pushes it forward. Farrell grew up in the Albany and Lake George areas, majored in economics at Hamilton College, and earned his master’s degree in forestry at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse. There, he “learned the wonders of maple syrup” on a field trip, according to New Leaf’s website. Next stop: a doctorate in natural resources at Cornell University. It was a natural jump to Cornell’s Uihlein Forest in Lake Placid, where maple syrup research was under way, and where Farrell still lives. He served 13 years as director there, then struck out on his own in 2017, when he and two financial partners acquired a hefty chunk of mostly second-growth hardwood forest along Bradley Pond Road a few miles north of Lyon Mountain. “I wanted to try, on my own and on a large scale, what I’d been researching,” he says.
Today his company owns 5,700 acres (plus a few thousand more in Marshfield, Vt.). He taps 113,000 maple trees—only about half of his inventory—along with 30,000 white birch trees, 6,000 beech trees, and 300 butternuts to produce New Leaf syrups.
“We are likely the largest birch syrup producer in the world, with over 50,000 taps in New York and Vermont,” Farrell observes matter-of-factly. He runs 1,000 miles of tubing, enough to transport sap from Lyon Mountain to Jacksonville, Fla. More than five miles of it, mainly underground, carry sap downhill from a transfer station in the woods to 300,000-gallon storage tanks at the “sugar house,” a state-of-the art production facility and store off Route 374 along Upper Chateaugay Lake. Some 400 machines span the spectrum from sensors and pumps to fancy, immaculate evaporators. It’s all a huge contributor to Clinton County’s ranking as the number one producer of maple syrup in the state.
Learning in the woods
Early January – the sky is gray; the woods are gray. Woodlands Manager Dan Tanski teaches “Tapping 101” in a stand of thin sugar maples, in anticipation of the start of the annual sap run in a couple of months. His students are a dozen Jamaican farm workers, an ethnic representation Lyon Mountain never saw in its mining days. They work summers and falls at Forrence Orchards in the Champlain Valley. They are attentive, serious, seemingly oblivious to the cold, the rocky terrain, the wind softly ruffling the forest crown, the snow underfoot. They are learning to place a tap carefully every 1.4 minutes.
“Think of yourself as a human drill press,” says Tanski, wielding a hand drill that looks like a space movie prop. “Always drill forward, even backing out—it pulls out the shavings.”
Farrell next explains how to evaluate trees: their overall health, signs of leaf and bark borers, crown quality. Then the syllabus turns to proper placing of tubing. Not coincidentally, they huddle at a spot where one tube is sagging. After everyone discusses what to do about it, bearded and well-bundled Jamaican Nuthan Gallimore steps up to a junction. “This is how you do it,” he announces with the voice of experience, and sets to work.
Most of the seasonal workers have been with Farrell for four seasons. He also employs another dozen locals, mostly for the sugarhouse and store, rendering him, he says, the largest employer in Lyon Mountain since the mines closed. He says he has little trouble finding employees as we hike down the rutty one-lane woods road, part of a miles-long network that he has constructed, toward headquarters, a bright green building that quadruples as office, classroom, storeroom and living quarters for the crew.
Not your grandfather’s sugaring operation
I ask Farrell what challenges he faces.
Adirondack Park Agency (APA) regulations? Not really. “We’re classified as an agricultural enterprise,” he says. “We have more interaction with the Department of Environmental Conservation. Through them we have a conservation easement, so there will be no development. We host snowmobile/ski trails and hunting camps,” he says as a camp owner rolls up on an ATV for a quick chat.
What about climate change? “That’s a major problem for the world, but not for us,” he says. “Maybe we start tapping a little earlier.” Contrary to most, he believes the sugar maple range will move south as Earth’s climate warms, not north, a thoroughly grounded but complex prediction he explains in his wide-ranging book, “The Sugarmaker’s Companion. “
“Bigger worries for us are browsing deer —one reason why we allow hunting—and, industry-wide, poor woodlands management. And pests—beech leaf disease, beech bark disease, Asian longhorn beetles….”
Altitude? Nope. Most of us associate sap runs with lower elevations than the hills abutting Lyon Mountain, highest peak in the northern Adirondacks, but “It only means the season’s a few days later,” Farrell says.
How about sales? Who buys birch syrup?
You don’t want to pour it on pancakes, a former Lake Placid chef told an Adirondack Life reporter in 2014. He used it as a burger glaze and said it tastes like iron. Since most of us don’t eat iron, perhaps only Lyon Mountain old-timers can relate to that. Then again, maybe it’s something in the water, given that Farrell’s enterprise is downslope from still-embedded ore. Meanwhile, Adirondack writer Beth Rowland says butternut syrup, while difficult to describe, tastes, well, “nutty,” with an “earthy” flavor that’s “faintly butterscotch-y.”
Maple products remain the company’s best seller; birch is No. 2. Samplers can be purchased via New Leaf’s website, which also markets Maple Balsam Fir and Tangy Birch Syrup. The site offers recipes for esoterica like Spicy Birch Tofu and Chai Pudding with Maple Compote, which is described via a geographically ironic typo as “a delicious desert.” All good, but isn’t harvesting on such a massive scale harmful ecologically?
This gets us into New Leaf/Forest Farmers’ philosophy. “We’re not your grandfather’s back-lot short- term sugaring operation,” says Tim Urban. Urban is a former executive in the food, consumer products, retail and media industries—he once worked at the late celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain’s production company —and now serves as New Leaf’s CEO. “Most producers focus just on maple. We focus on the whole forest, on issues like regeneration and long-term sustainability. We call ourselves ‘forest farmers’ because we are good stewards of our land.”
“We’re not a monoculture,” Farrell adds. “We’re about carbon sequestration, preserving wildlife, everything that makes a healthy forest. We’ve seen moose in the wetlands we’re protecting.”
Urban tosses out a slogan: “We’re triple bottom line—people, product, planet.”
The company doesn’t regard the community as simply a place for resource extraction, Urban says. “Our goal is maintaining the integrity of the forest while bringing more and better product to the public. We’re looking to the future, to improving the health of the forest while balancing commercial interest.” Quarters on their balance sheet are “quarter-century, not three months,” he adds.
Farrell nods in agreement. Maybe the up-and-coming “m” word for Lyon Mountain should be “modern.”