Schoharie County kicked off the growing season Saturday at the Cobleskill Fairgrounds with the 50th annual Maple Festival, a celebration of the first harvest of the year: maple syrup. And maple candy, and maple cream, and maple butter, and maple cotton candy.
“It’s the first celebration of spring,” said festival chairman Jerry Lape. “And usually the first big thing that happens in Schoharie County is the Maple Festival, and it has been for a long time. Fifty years.”
The festival celebrated its 50th year as it does every year, by inviting local maple producers and other vendors to set up shop among live entertainment, a parade and the crowning of the new Maple Queen. This year, the tiara was passed from 16-year-old Sara Green, last year’s queen, to 16-year-old Taylor Marie Shafer, a student at Cobleskill-Richmondville High School.
“Having grown up around maple producers and helping my father and uncle make maple syrup as a youngster, I understand and can appreciate how much hard work and dedication is involved in this way of life,” Shafer wrote in her candidate biography. “It is important to me to represent the maple industry and our great Schoharie County.”
Throughout the year, Shafer will represent the industry at fairs and other events, as well as having the opportunity to compete to be New York State Maple Queen, said Lape.
“She’ll be in various parades, she’ll be at the Cobleskill Fair,” he said. “And we’ve had some Maple Queens from Schoharie County become state queens over the years.”
The Maple Festival began 50 years ago in the town of Jefferson as a way to not only celebrate the first harvest, but to promote the area’s maple industry.
“Agriculture remains the biggest industry in New York state,” said Assemblyman Pete Lopez, R-Schoharie, in delivering a proclamation from the state Legislature recognizing the festival’s 50th year. “And what’s fascinating about the Maple Festival is that you bring farm and forest together, you bring small towns together, you bring communities together. It’s a way of life, but it’s also an important economic contributor to Schoharie County.”
The festival featured four major maple producers. Lape said there used to be a lot more “backyard operations,” but over the years the industry has consolidated to mostly larger businesses.
Earl Van Wormer, owner of Van-Dale Farms and Esperance town supervisor, had his maple syrup for sale, along with honey, goat milk soap and a variety of other goods from the farm. He said this year was a “short but very productive” season that, for him, produced a light-colored, flavorful maple syrup.
“This year was later than normal,” he said. “We probably started putting out the taps in February. March was a pretty good run, then we had a little lull, then April was probably the bigger month. But it was a short season this year.”
Outside the main show barn, a full maple syrup evaporator sat on a trailer, steaming away as it boiled raw sap into syrup. The attention-getting rig was brought to the festival by a class from the Northern Catskills Occupational Center in Grand Gorge.
Students said they usually tap more than 1,000 trees in their maple production class to make maple syrup, maple candy and maple cream, which they sell to raise funds for the class.
“I enjoyed learning how to boil down sap to make syrup out of it,” said Matthew Finne, 17, a student of NCOC. “The way you can tap a tree and actually get a product out of that. It’s fun.”
As the sun warmed up and the cold wind died down, Bill Anderson and Amanda Gunther of Fultonville stopped to check out the evaporator as they enjoyed the festival with their two young children. Anderson said they started making their own maple syrup about four years ago, tapping four trees on their property to make 11⁄2 to two gallons a season.
“It’s cheaper to do it yourself, and it’s a hobby,” he said. “Gets you out in the wilderness.”
There was plenty to learn about maple production Saturday, either from conversations with the enthusiastic producers or in more formal lessons in tree tapping from the Cobleskill Future Farmers of America.
Anderson and Gunther said they were eager to pick up a few tips. And for any aspiring backyard maple producers, Anderson had some simple advice: “Just get out and try it.”