WEST GLENVILLE — A former apple orchard in West Glenville has returned to life as Schenectady County's only commercial maple sugaring operation, offering sales of syrup, candy, maple spreads and even maple cotton candy.
Riverside Maple Farms will officially open at 7152 Amsterdam Road (Route 5) at 10 a.m. Thursday, but owners Chris and Erica Welch have already produced nearly 1,000 gallons of syrup and are looking forward to offering tours of their production facility, inside a newly constructed red barn near the Montgomery County line.
They're opening to the public now because many people think about farm touring in the fall, when most crops are harvested, even though maple syrup is produced in the spring.
"Our real passion is bringing people in, teaching about the process, having tours," said Erica Welch, 33, who grew up in Rhode Island. She met her husband, Chris, 39, when both were attending Union College in Schenectady.
Chris' family had "sugared" as a hobby while he was growing up.
Erica's sister, Emily Gierke, has joined the business to manage the retailing.
The Welches are launching into a niche of the agricultural industry that is well-established in New York state — the nation's No. 2 maple producer, after Vermont, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture figures. The state produced an estimated 760,000 gallons of syrup in 2017, but that is still barely one-third of Vermont's annual output.
While there are nearly 500 commercial maple syrup producers in New York state, there are no others in Schenectady County, according to the New York State Maple Producers Association.
Glenville and Schenectady County officials are high on the new farm, which they see as another attraction along a rural section of highway that the town wants to promote as an agricultural tourism destination. The Welches bought the property in June 2016, about five years after the apple orchard was abandoned, and built the 5,300-square-foot barn, which includes a retail store.
"We're excited because the [land use] comprehensive plan we've been working on for three years has always envisioned an agricultural corridor out here," Town Supervisor Chris Koetzle said.
The town Local Development Corp. loaned $65,000 to the startup maple venture, while the Schenectady Metroplex Development Authority has loaned another $125,000. The Welches would not say what their total investment has been so far.
Metroplex Chairman Ray Gillen touted it as another tourism attraction that can be marketed by the county.
"At the county level, it can be bundled with the casino and the [ViaPort Rotterdam] aquarium as attractions," he said.
Both Welches have full-time jobs as information technology consultants, and they don't expect that to change right away.
"For us, this is nights and weekends," Erica Welch said.
There are about 30 acres, including a maple sugarbush, at the business site, plus about 260 acres with maple trees where Chris Welch grew up, near Ridge Road in the Glenville hills. Trees at both locations were tapped last spring, with the sap collected on Ridge Road trucked to the Route 5 barn. In all, about 3,000 trees are being tapped, using the latest in maple farming technology.
Trees are tapped in late January or early February, and a vacuum system is used to gather the sap — about one gallon per tree per day during the brief early spring sugaring season. Miles of tubes connect the tree taps to a pump behind the sugar house.
"There's a huge amount of time you have to spend in the woods," Chris Welch said. "You have to check the line every day. A squirrel can chew through it. A tree limb can fall on it. We are very, very busy between January and April."
In the sugarhouse, a reverse osmosis system takes sap that is 2 percent sugar and concentrates it to about 8 percent to 12 percent sugar. That's followed by boiling that produces a product the consistency of maple syrup, which is stored in 40-gallon barrels and can be kept nearly indefinitely, so bottles can be filled from them throughout the year — or candy manufactured. It takes roughly 40 gallons of sap to produce a gallon of maple syrup.
"A lot of people think you just tap into the tree and then it goes into the jug, and that's definitely not what's happening," Erica Welch said.
An on-site kitchen makes the candies and maple spreads. There have been talks with Wolf Hollow Brewing Co. — located about two-tenths of a mile east on Amsterdam Road — of developing joint products.
"My partners and I are excited to have another craft business in the area that will offer a unique and rich experience for our community and those who travel here," said Pete Bednarek, co-owner of Wolf Hollow.
Riverside Maple Farms will be open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays, year-round.