By Richard Finzer
Excerpt from the book Maple on Tap
Looking back 150 years, nearly every American lived on a family farm. The family was very self-sufficient and raised their own livestock, vegetables, grain and forage. They cut their own wood, tended their own orchards or fruit-bearing plants, sheared their own sheep, and some even made their own maple syrup.
Every individual and family, other than the 10 percent that lived in cities, strived to achieve a high level of self-sufficiency. But not everyone could master all the skills needed to be totally self-sufficient. The orchard man might have been a poor hand at raising livestock, but he still needed meat. The beekeeper also kept a few chickens, but had too many eggs for one family. The woodcutter had no talent for farming, but made maple syrup every spring, and his raspberries were the best anyone had ever tasted. But a person can’t very well live on a diet consisting entirely of syrup and berries.
Even in 1861, people specialized in what each knew best. But specialization is both a blessing and a curse, because you’ve got a “longage” of what you can produce and a glaring shortage of everything else. Now, just as it was in those times, everyone is good at something, but almost no one is proficient at everything.
So how did everyone survive back then? Easy. They bartered what they had for what they needed. Remember, most rural landowners were as cash-strapped back then as many are today. Our ancestors developed and used a simple formula: no money changed hands and everyone got a fair shake. That’s how true communities are formed — mutual need and mutual benefit. Think of their system of exchange as socialism without the taxes, communism without the torture, or capitalism without the money. A community is not a legally defined geo-political entity; in its purest form it’s a network of people sharing what they have for the things they desire.
How times have changed, or have they? Lately, the press is filled with stories extolling the virtues of sustainability, while urging support of local farmers and at the same time imploring consumers to regain control of what they eat. And up to a point, there’s much to be admired about those currently trendy points of view. But, I’m not a big fan of media hype or “environmentally conscious” buzzwords, because while buzzwords come and go, basic human needs and the desire to fulfill them are as old as the human race itself. So what’s this got to do with making maple syrup? Simple.
As a backyard syrup maker, your annual production might total six gallons. And unless you eat French toast for breakfast every morning, it’s doubtful you’ll use all that syrup before sugar time comes around again. But maple syrup has tremendous value. As an example, one website I found online (and absolutely refuse to name) sells 8-ounce bottles for $14.95, and that doesn’t even include the shipping charges!
Have you got enough of your own syrup to sell? That’s doubtful, and besides, unless it’s inspected by the agriculture department or its equivalent in your state, it’s probably not legal for you to sell it anyway. But assuming it was inspected, and assuming you put it all up in 8-ounce bottles, even at $15 at a whack, you’re still only looking at a revenue total of about $900. Worse yet, if you sell it all you won’t have any syrup left for yourself! So rather than ending up with money and no syrup, why not try to build a community food network like the one I belong to? Including myself, my community network of sustainability has seven members. And basically, here’s how it works.
Community Sustainability Network
I swap syrup for honey with my neighbor up the road. He owns less than an acre of land, heats with a wood-burning stove, but has no woodlot. However, he keeps bees and I have a large black locust woodlot, the flower nectar of which makes incredible tasting honey. Another neighbor, about equidistant the other direction, plants a quarter-acre garden and boards horses. He has no maple trees but plenty of manure. A third guy, a bit farther down the road, raises strawberries. Around the first corner from my house lives a fellow whose expertise at growing apples is very well known. Another neighbor about a mile away raises chickens. I make maple syrup, own a 45-acre woodlot, and maintain a luxuriant blackberry patch.
Get the picture? The seven of us didn’t arrive simultaneously on the country road we share and we devoted considerable time getting to know each other. But once that happened we discovered to our mutual advantage that we could engage in a network of old-fashioned, cash-free country commerce to benefit us all. The math isn’t important. It’s the sense of community and trust that’s important. We each exchange goods with one another, have become good neighbors, and in some cases close friends.
Trust is the lynchpin. Our simple barter-based system couldn’t exist without it. My beekeeper friend has no honey in March, but he receives maple syrup from me, as do the apple grower, strawberry patch owner, and the vegetable gardener. After I deliver my maple syrup, I won’t receive any return of honey, fruit or vegetables for several months to come. So I have to trust that the bonds I’ve built will hold tight. The chicken guy won’t be canning any of my blackberries until late July, but despite that, I can still rely on receiving my regular allotment of eggs, because he trusts me. Remove mutual trust from our little economic model, and the thing collapses like a house of cards.
Can you and your neighbors emulate our enterprise? I don’t know. What I do know is that you’d be a fool if you didn’t try.
Lastly, from a sustainability standpoint, it’s nearly impossible to think of anything more sustainable than making your own maple syrup. Unlike a garden that must be replanted annually or chickens that must be replaced as the older hens end up on the chopping block, once a sugar maple tree reaches the minimum tapping diameter of 16 inches, it may be tapped annually for the next 100 years or more.
About the Author
During four decades as a writer, Rich Finzer worked as a newspaper reporter and editor, technical writer and freelancer. His work has appeared in nationally distributed magazines such as BackHome, Dollar Stretcher, Living Aboard, Life in the Finger Lakes, Upstate Gardeners’ Journal, Naval History and others. He has penned more than 1,000 articles, humorous essays and feature stories.
He was also a guest lecturer at Syracuse University on the subject of writing in the commercial environment. He resided on an 80-acre farm near Hannibal, New York, where he made maple syrup every spring for more than twenty years, since 1991. He loved dogs, cutting his own firewood, and his wife of 36 years (not necessarily in that order). He cannot, however, abide the taste of peas. Rich Finzer passed away in 2019.