By Elizabeth Riggs
When Marty Wendel was a 10-year-old boy, making maple syrup was just a simple way to make extra cash.
“As a young guy wanting to buy a mini bike, I was looking for some way to make money, so I started to experiment with making maple syrup,” said Wendel. “We built a little sugar house out back in the woods when I was a freshman in high school.”
Fifty years later, a curiosity has turned into a passion, and one tap has turned into about 6,000 for Wendel and his immediate family who run the maple syrup operation of Wendel’s Poultry Farm and who will be participating in Maple Weekends.
“It truly is a family affair,” said Wendel, who runs the sugar house with his wife, Bernie; son, Nick; daughter, Cami; and daughter-in-law, Lynne, who all help with the family business.
“Traditionally, maple syrup is handed down from one generation to another, although I was the first of a generation to start it on our farm,” said Wendel. “I learned all of my mistakes the hard way. There wasn’t anybody there to teach us, so we learned it on our own. Sometimes you made the same mistake a couple times.”
But these days, Wendel has making syrup down to an art. In 2013, the family completed construction of a beautiful new sugar house, complete with an observation deck for a truly educational experience.
“You can go upstairs in the observation deck and look out on the evaporator, and a two-year-old has a better vantage point than a grown-up does,” Wendel said.
No matter your point of view, Wendel’s sugar house is impressive. In addition to the evaporator, it has cozy sitting areas, a historic exhibit of old maple syrup equipment, a kitchen where all of the maple goods are made, and a small shop for purchasing syrup-making supplies.
This is Wendel’s fourth year participating in Maple Weekends, an initiative started in 1955 by the New York State Maple Producers Association with the goal of educating the public about syrup making processes, traditions and products.
Throughout the state, Maple Weekends will be running on March 18-19 and March 25-26, but Wendel’s will be open every weekend in March for tours, tastings and fun. It’s Wendel’s hope that maple syrup will become to March what pumpkins are to October: a full month of festivities and family fun.
“Our goal is to build this into maple month, not just maple weekend,” said Wendel. “We sell pumpkins in the fall and I remember as a kid, people used to come and get a pumpkin the week before Halloween, and now they just kept getting them earlier, and earlier, and earlier,” said Wendel. “It’s really a family, traditional trek out to the country. Why can’t we do that with maple syrup?”
The sugar house will be open every Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and the family will be explaining the process of making maple syrup, offering hayrides into the woods to view tubing and sap buckets in use, and of course, offering visitors syrup samples. The best part? It’s free.
“The only way you’re going to spend something is if you walk out with a jug of syrup,” said Wendel. “We kind of pride ourselves on letting people taste the four different grades of syrup. They can taste the four different grades and then choose the one that they like the best.”
In addition to the jugs of syrup, guests can also dip silver dollar-sized pancakes and soft pretzels into their choice of maple syrup or maple cream. Visitors will also find a variety of maple goods for sale, including maple sugar candy, maple cotton candy, maple fluff, maple coated peanuts, granulated maple sugar, maple cream and a popular homemade maple mustard.
“Most people can’t buy one— they buy two or three jars,” Wendel said of the mustard. “It’s kind of habit forming.”
Like the mustard, Wendel is hoping that Maple Weekends will become habit forming for Western New Yorkers, and he encourages families to come out and make a day of touring multiple sugar houses in the area.
“People like to come out and go to three or four sugar houses in the immediate area and they can make a day of it,” said Wendel. “Everybody makes hot, sticky, sweet stuff, but everybody makes it a little bit differently.”
No matter how the maple syrup is made, one thing is certain: it takes a lot of work and a lot of passion. But according to Wendel, it’s worth it.
“If I didn’t really love making maple syrup, I would have been out of it a long time ago,” he said.
For more information about Wendel’s maple syrup and sugar house, visit their web site at www.wendelspoultryfarm.com. For more information on Maple Weekends, visit: www.nysmaple.com.