By Jeff Martin
Tim Ulinger has lived most of his life in syrup.
Growing up in East Otto, Ulinger and his father worked together tapping the dozen maple trees on their property, selling their product to friends and families. That was back in 1982. As the years went by, Ulinger and his father produced a little more each year.
When he tells the story now, Ulinger, 39, chuckles a bit.
“We’d come home and boil everything we had,” he said. “Boil it all night. I think the most syrup we got was 86 gallons in one season.”
Back in the good old days, the Ulingers tapped trees with primitive tools and collected sap into buckets, which they placed in plastic bags and hauled back to the fire.
Now, years later, Tim and his wife Missy preside over what has become a childhood love turned popular business. While the equipment is bigger and more expensive, the hours longer and more strenuous, the process of tapping maple trees, transporting the sap through the forest and into the sugar shack before it’s boiled, the process is the same.
In fact, it’s an ancient process that continues to baffle everyone who is involved in the process — whether commercially or personally.
“I mean, how did Native Americans even know to get the sap out and then boil it?” Missy questioned. “It’s amazing.”
When Tim graduated high school in 1991, he entered the police academy and eventually found employment in Jamestown and other departments. He worked on his career from 1993 to 2000, and tapping maple trees became a rare occurrence.
“I’d help my dad every so often, when I could find the time,” he said.
In 2000, they found a property on Crumb Hill Road in East Otto. A large, sprawling property, the owners dabbled in maple syrup production and had a basic facility on the property — known as a sugar shack.
When the Ulingers saw it, they knew they wanted to get back in the syrup business.
“I love the woods,” Tim said. “I love the whole process of it. It’s neat to see all the work that goes into it, all the labor, and enjoying the product when it’s all done.”
In their first year, the Ulingers tapped 1,000 trees. Thirteen years later, they have 10,000 trees spread across 80 acres of land, most of which surrounds their home. Trudging up the hill behind the house, Tim and his family — wife Missy and their five children, plus hired help Matt Ulinger and Matt Lindsey — point to one of the trees and the two taps jutting out of it. They study the scars from last year’s holes and smile.
“This is a good, healthy tree,” Matt Ulinger said. “See how the hole closed up?”
The family is expecting a good season. Unlike last year, the weather has been cold and warm, which causes the sap inside the tree to move. They began tapping trees in earnest about the first week in February and are bottling steadily now. In addition to gallon jugs, there are half-gallon jugs and small pints lining the tables. There are even drums of the precious elixir in one corner, some of which will be shipped as far as China.
This year marks the third season using their new evaporator, which improves the speed by which the sap is boiled and converted into syrup. It’s a simple process requiring some of the most complex machinery in the business, some of which cost upwards of $50,000.
“It’s not a hobby,” Tim said. “A lot of people think it’s just putting a hole in a tree.”
New York State continues to be one of the hotbeds of maple syrup production. In fact, state legislators are continuing their push to get more landowners to lease their land to syrup producers. There are tax incentives, Tim said, because people are realizing just how much of a cash crop maple syrup is.
Both Tim and Missy are interested in expanding and growing their business. As far as taps go, the Ulingers tapped an additional 200 trees in the last two weeks.
“We’re always looking ahead,” Missy said, adding that participating in Maple Weekends in the future is a possibility, as well as a small pancake house.
In addition to syrup, the Ulingers sell maple cream, pancake mix, maple candy and granulated sugar. Their product can be found as close as Springville and Cattaraugus, to as far away as Switzerland and China.
Still, Ulingers Maple Farm is already a Maple Weekends outfit. People stop in all the time to watch them boil the sap. Missy said many people stop by and ask for tours — and call the fire department.
“They see the smoke and think our barn is on fire,” Missy laughed. “They probably aren’t from around here.”
And judging by the interest shown by one of their children, Tim, the business won’t be fading into the sunset anytime soon.
“The kids have shown interest in keeping it going, especially Tim,” Tim said of his son.
“The kids love helping out with the whole operation,” Missy said. “It’s a family affair.”