For ESF Students, Money Really Does Grow on Trees

For ESF Students, Money Really Does Grow on Trees

For some students at the State University College of Environmental Science and Forestry, money really does grow on sugar-maple trees.

The university’s bookstore began carrying ESF all-natural maple syrup last year. The syrup is produced at ESF’s Heiberg Forest in Tully, by students and staff.

Proceeds from the bookstore, run by the Alumni Association, fund scholarships for a number of students at the school. In 2012, the association provided $14,500 in scholarships, and that number has increased each year since. The Alumni Association sold syrup at the New York State Fair for the first time this year.

The money raised by bookstore sales pays for scholarships that are independent of university financial aid programs, said Mark Hicks of the ESF financial aid office.

“We do it all on our own,” said Stacey Messina, bookstore manager, and a member of the Alumni Association. “Students submit applications for scholarships through the alumni board, where everyone reviews it, and then each member of the board votes on who gets the money. The money comes directly from the proceeds of the bookstore, so every year we’ve been able to hand out more and more scholarships as the bookstore makes more money.”

ESF also uses the money to pay for things that benefit students in other ways, according to Debbie Caviness, director of the Alumni Association.    

“There is no set portion of money that goes towards the scholarships. We put the money in the operating account and that goes towards scholarships, student services, and student programming, along with our alumni association events. The maple syrup we started selling through the college bookstore last year. Previously, the syrup was sold directly from the forest office,” Caviness said.  

Students who earn the alumni association scholarships are well rounded and must have good grades, along with hours of community service, activities on and off campus, and sometimes a need for scholarship, Messina said. 

“A lot of our students receive financial aid but a lot of them pay for college without the help of a parent,” said Messina. “We also do different scholarships for international students than for domestic students.”

A few times a year, there’s also a select batch of maple whip available. Maple whip is made by beating the syrup until it’s about the same consistency of apple butter, and can then be used as a spread on bread.

The maple whip is only produced in batches of about a dozen jars, and always sells out within minutes.

Mark Appleby, the Southern Properties Manager, who works at the forest where students and staff harvest the maple sap from sugar maple trees, said the season runs from the middle of February to the end of March.  

When the weather starts to warm up and the days get longer, the sap starts coming back out of the ground into the tree, and then at night it goes back down into the ground, he said. To collect, the forest staff drains the trees as the sap flows up and down. According to Appleby, the collection is the most productive on days when it is really warm during the day and colder at night, because this yields long runs of sap. The sap runs end when the weather gets warm continuously.

The process is anything but easy. It takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup, through a process of evaporation.

The collection begins with the staff going down to the sap house. There’s tubing that goes from the sap house to each tree that uses 20 pounds of vacuum pressure to get the sap from the tree. The tubing doesn’t suck the sap through the line like a straw; instead it just keeps that negative pressure going to maximize the sap per tap.

The sap is the driven to the sugar house and put into a tank that runs the sap through a reverse osmosis machine. For every 10 gallons of sap and 2 gallons of sap concentrate, the machine gets rid of the water and keeps the sap. That sap is then put in a tank that gravity slowly feeds into the evaporator. As the steam comes off the evaporator it then is replaced by the heavy sap, and it runs through the pans, so by the time it gets around to the other side it’s syrup.

When the syrup reaches 216 degrees, it comes off automatically before it is pumped through some filters and a canner. A forest employee then cans each bottle by hand.  

While there are some students who help with the collection and cooking of the sap, it is mostly done by the forest staff. Since the process is reliant on very specific weather, it’s difficult to organize students to be there when the trees are ready.

The building where the syrup is processed at Heiberg is under construction. The team of grounds workers there are busy building a storage room for the syrup, and a kitchen where the staff will produce maple candies. They hope to be done with the construction before the next collection season begins, Appleby said.

Despite the rapid growth of this project, don’t expect to see ESF syrup on the shelves of Wegman’s any time soon. The profit margin on the syrup is too small, making it not cheap enough to sell to stores, Caviness said.

You can purchase ESF maple syrup at the ESF Bookstore, or online at

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