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UP CLOSE: Mike Farrell leaves Uihlein Forest maple program

Launches new maple products company with land in NY, VT

July 6, 2017
By ANDY FLYNN - Editor ( , Lake Placid News

LAKE PLACID - Two guys walk into a sugarhouse. ... There's really no joke here. Mike Farrell is walking out of one sugarhouse and into another one.

Friday, June 30 was Farrell's last day as the director of Cornell University's Uihlein Maple Forest, a 200-acre research and extension field station on Bear Cub Lane. He's been there for 12 years, tapping about 6,000 maples, 700 birch trees, and several dozen black walnut and butternut trees every year. Now he's going into the maple business for himself, with a couple of partners.

Enter Joe Orefice, a former professor at Paul Smith's College who began working at the Uihlein Forest in March and succeeded Farrell on July 1.

Article Photos

Mike Farrell
(News photo — Andy Flynn)

"It was set up 52 years ago by Henry Uihlein II, who had a sugarbush of his own," Farrell said. "He had close ties to Cornell and decided that it would be a good idea to start a center devoted to maple research and education, so he gave 200 acres to Cornell back then."

Uihlein, who made maple syrup at his Heaven Hill Farm property on Bear Cub Lane, set up the Uihlein Forest for research and education, primarily on the pure maple industry and related products.

"People think maple syrup is simple processing," Farrell said. "In theory it is, but in practice there's a lot of complexity and there's a lot of new technology and new developments in order to make it cost effective, more environmentally friendly and more efficient."

Other than harvesting maple and birch sap at the Uihlein Forest sugarhouse, education, using the research, is really the main product of the extension center. The syrup is merely a byproduct.

"We do research there on topics of interest to maple producers and then use that research through the Cornell Cooperative Extension and the New York State Maple Producers Association to disseminate that information," Farrell said.

A Paul Smith's College graduate, Lewis Staats was hired as the Uihlein Forest's first field station manager when the property was established in 1965. He was inducted into the North American Maple Syrup Council's Maple Hall of Fame at the American Maple Museum in Croghan, New York, in 1997, and he retired from the Uihlein Forest in January 2001.

Staats was succeeded by Colin Campbell and then Farrell, who was hired in January 2005.

Of his years at the Uihlein Forest, Farrell's best memories were based in educating maple syrup producers about the industry.

"It was really satisfying to be able to help people develop their own businesses," Farrell said. "The most satisfying things were people would come to me because they had a passion, they had an idea, they wanted to learn how to do it right. To be able to teach people how to do that, and to see people successful, to see people enjoying making a great product and be able to influence that, to have a positive effect on people's lives was really good."

He also enjoyed experimenting with tapping and making syrup from other species of trees, such as birch, walnut and beech.


The maple bug

Farrell grew up in Albany, graduating from the state capital's Bishop Maginn High School in 1996 and earning a bachelor's degree in economics from Hamilton College in 2000.

"I did some internships with Merrill Lynch, and I could have done that whole thing, but I decided I'd rather be out in the woods," he said.

Farrell then attended the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, where he earned a master's degree in forestry, and got his Ph.D. in natural resources from Cornell University while working in Lake Placid.

"I like being in nature, so that's why I studied a lot about forests and forestry," he said. "I wanted to go learn about how to manage forests properly. ... I wanted to learn about how you can take care of the woods and get good products without causing harm."

Farrell didn't learn about maple syrup production until he attended SUNY-ESF.

"One of our classes had a field trip to have a pancake breakfast at the sugarhouse and learn about syrup, and I was just amazed," he said. "So I went and tried it out."

At his family's summer home at Lake George, Farrell then tried making his own maple syrup, with no luck at all.

"I was doing it on weekends back and forth from Syracuse to Lake George, and it was a disaster," he said.

This is the guy who producers from around the Maple Belt now contact for information about making maple syrup - the author of "The Sugarmaker's Companion: An Integrated Approach to Producing Syrup from Maple, Birch, and Walnut Trees."

"I didn't know what I was doing, so I burned two or three of my mom's best pots, and then I was banished from the kitchen," Farrell said. "So she put me outside on the open fire pit, and then I got ashes into it. It was just terrible. None of the syrup I tried to make before I started working at Cornell was ever edible."

What Farrell discovered was that he loved the sap.

"I tapped trees for several more years just to drink the sap," he said.


New direction

Farrell, who still lives in a house he built next to the Uihlein Forest, is now the CEO of a company called The Forest Farmers (originally Adirondack Management).

"I didn't have the time to be able to devote to the new venture, and I didn't have the time to be able to do everything at Cornell, so I had to make a decision to do one or the other," he said. "You only live once, and this was a great opportunity, so I figured I'd give it a shot."

The company owns 6,700 acres of land in the towns of Ellenburg and Dannemora and a couple thousand acres in Vermont.

"We're doing large-scale maple and birch sap and syrup production focusing on the beverage market for the sap and developing new markets overseas," Farrell said. "We're going to have one of the largest maple companies there is. We're going to be doing a lot of new innovations and a lot of new product development and employing a lot of people. There's going to be a lot of jobs around this."

The Forest Farmers will be constructing a sugarhouse in the town of Ellenburg later this year to make the syrup and sell the sap to companies that bottle it for beverages.

"The goal now is to build out that land, to develop it, because we have potential for hundreds of thousands of taps on that land," Farrell said.

Farrell plans on staying in Lake Placid, and he firmly believes in the future of the maple industry.

"When we bought that land and built that house, I was thinking I was going to retire out of there," he said. "It's a great position, and I love my job there. So to give up that security with two kids and another on the way, if I wasn't confident that the future was bright for maple and birch, there's no way I would have given that up."



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