27 Oct 2015
Maple syrup maker brings modern tools and sustainable harvesting practices to the woods of upstate New Yorkby Deborah BlaggTopics:
Photo by Mitch Wojnarowicz
When it comes to starting new ventures, some people think big picture and others dive into the details. When Robb Turner (MBA 1990) talks about the start-up of his flourishing maple syrup company, it’s obvious he’s pretty good at both.
A West Point graduate with a degree in engineering, Turner has spent much of his post-HBS career in energy finance, corporate finance, and public and private equity investment. In 2001, he cofounded ArcLight Capital Partners, LLC, a private equity firm focused on the North American energy sector, with $15 billion in funds. As senior partner, Turner is responsible for overall investment, strategic planning, and asset management.
Looking for the perfect location for a family vacation retreat in 2009, Turner and his wife, Lydia, found and purchased 400 acres of pristine land in Dover Plains, New York, about 80 miles north of Manhattan.
“It was stunning—completely untouched,” says Turner. They named the property Madava Farms after daughters Maddie and Ava. “There were no roads, no houses; just forest, trout streams, and wildlife,” he notes. “We’d walk in the woods and think how amazing it was that this kind of geography still exists in New York.”
The couple soon acquired an additional 400 acres of nearby hardwood forest to protect it from development—and thus began a journey that led to the launch of Crown Maple, now a leading US maple syrup producer with a following that spans the worlds of Cornell University forestry experts and trendsetting New York chefs.
“We had all this land, with about 20,000 old-growth sugar maples and red maples,” relates Turner. “Big picture, this was 2009 and we were newcomers in a rural area where the unemployment rate was 15 percent. We wanted to protect the forest for future generations, but we also started wondering if there was some way we could have a positive impact on the local economy.”
The Turners considered maple sugaring at a neighbor’s casual suggestion, and the more they learned about it, the more it seemed like a viable option. Raised on a farm in the Midwest, Robb was comfortable with agriculture, and Lydia had a background in the food industry. “It seemed a good match,” he says. “And if you do it right, harvesting maple sap is a totally sustainable agricultural practice.”
Good Timing and Good Chemistry
Doing it right was the next step. At the outset, the couple agreed that in addition to being good stewards of the land, they wanted to produce syrup that would set a new industry standard in quality and flavor. Turner began researching everything he could find about sugaring and found a willing mentor in Mike Farrell, director of Cornell University’s Sugar Maple Research & Extension Field Station in Lake Placid, New York.
“Mike was already working with grants from the state of New York to expand its maple industry,” Turner explains. “Senator Chuck Schumer was among those who believed this was the only agricultural business that had a chance to grow in New York, and he was very active in boosting the idea. We couldn’t have picked a better time to launch.”
After more than a year of studying production practices and cross-country travels to acquire state-of-the-art equipment, the Turners began producing syrup under the Crown Maple label in 2010. He attributes the brand’s distinctive qualities—which a 2013 New York Times article described as “tasting softer and richer” than most syrups and pouring with “a languor more like that of honey”—in part to suspending harvesting earlier in the season than many competitors. “After trees begin to bud, the sap’s chemistry changes,” Turner notes. “The quality then is inferior, but some producers mix it in with their better grades to stretch yield. We decided not to do that.”
Turner also links his brand’s flavor to a purification process inspired by his experience in the oil and gas industry. “It’s called dissolved air flotation, or DAF,” he explains. “We inject microbubbles into the bottom of sap tanks. Any yeast, bacteria, or non-water-soluble particles adhere to the bubbles and float to the top to be skimmed off. Just the good stuff remains.”
DAF had been adapted to food processing before, but never in maple sugaring, says Turner. “I was afraid it might change the taste, but Mike and some other scientists worked on it with me, and when we tasted the first batch, it was incredible.”
For the Turners, “doing it right” also involves low-impact harvesting procedures. “We never lose sight of our original goal of trying to protect the forest,” he stresses. The company uses quarter-inch taps and marks the position of the tap on each tree every year to avoid re-tapping in the same place twice.
“We adhere strictly to best practices for forestry,” says Turner. “Only one tap in trees under 18 inches in diameter, and maybe two between 18 and 24. We never tap below 10 inches. We’d not only lose our organic certification, but we’d be destroying a future source of income.”
Building a sustainable business that protects unspoiled land, creating 30 much-needed local jobs, pioneering new production technology, and revitalizing New York’s maple sugaring industry appear to be just the beginning of Crown Maple’s story. Opened to the public in 2012, Madava Farms has become a state tourism draw as well, attracting visitors to its café, specialty food events, and tours of its grounds and Crown Maple’s production facility, the largest of its kind in North America.
“We have the capacity to process sap from 400,000 taps,” says Turner, who recently acquired 4,500 acres of forest with mature maples in Vermont. Crown Maple syrup, once available only to Madava Farms visitors, is now on the shelves of retailers such as Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and Kroger, and on the menu in upscale restaurants as a sweetener in everything from cocktails to main courses.
After focusing on details for several years, Turner hints he is once again looking at the big picture. “Most people are still thinking pancakes when they buy syrup,” he observes. “That’s about a $500 million US market. But today people have started looking for healthier alternatives to sugar in the sweetener market, which is exponentially larger.”
“If the maple industry can capture just a small percentage of those consumers,” he ventures, “we’ll be growing for many years to come.”
Class of MBA 1990, Section G