2023 marks the 25th season of maple syrup for Karen and Dave McComb at McComb’s Oak Hill Farm in Speculator. They began their venture in 1999 and have grown their maple syrup business year after year ever since.
McComb’s is family run operation (with help from a few volunteers!) that started out as a retirement hobby for Dave McComb when he and his wife Karen moved to Speculator after retirement. They started with just 200 trees tapped on what used to be Brook’s Farm on Elm Lake road. With trees that were cleared from the farmland, Dave built the sugar house with his own two hands, and with a little help from another local syrup expert, Jack Leadly, Dave began his venture into the maple world.
Unlike what you might expect when you think of sap collection, McComb’s does not use any buckets. Each tree has a line run from its tap, to a main line that gravity feeds to the sugar house, into the 800 gallon stainless steel tanks located behind the sugar house.
To really understand the amount of work that goes into making maple syrup, you have to know a little bit about the process. Ideally, for the sap to run, you need warm days, around 40 degrees, and nights below freezing. The freezing temperatures at night give the trees a chance to recoup, and then when the temperatures rise during the day, the trees can thaw and the sap will start running again.
When maple sap is collected, it usually contains around 2% sugar, the rest is water. To make maple syrup, you have to boil that water out until you have a minimum of 66% sugar (McComb’s goes to 67%). This process takes an immense amount of heat. They have since upgraded to oil, but the McCombs used to burn wood. They would go through 10-12 cords of wood per season, and would have a timer set to put more wood on the fire every 6 minutes! Now that they burn oil, they have added a reverse osmosis machine into their process to save on fuel costs. This machine helps reduce the water content, and raises the sugar content from 2% to 10% before boiling.
Maple syrup is typically put into different grades; light, medium, and dark. These classifications not only have to do with color, but flavor and timing of the season. The syrup made earlier in the season is typically much lighter, and not as intense of a flavor. As the season goes, the syrup gets darker and much stronger in flavor.
What most people don’t realize is just how much sap it takes to make maple syrup. To create just one gallon of maple syrup, it can take 40 gallons of sap! The McComb’s operation is on the smaller side, and they typically produce 600 gallons of maple syrup each year- and they sell every last drop. You can order their syrups online, as well as gift baskets, and with enough notice, wedding favors.
The McCombs also create other maple products that are extremely popular. They make their own maple sugar, maple candy, and even maple cotton candy!
What started out as a small hobby has turned into a full-time business in the late winter and early spring. Now in 2023, the McCombs have over 2,000 trees tapped and over 5 miles of lines ran through their 55 acres of woods! You can find their products locally here in Speculator. The Speculator Department Store carries their products, and you can find their syrup served at local establishments like The Sunrise Diner, Timberline Diner, and the Irondequoit Inn.
If you every find yourself in Speculator in late winter or early spring, put McComb’s Oak Hill Farm on your must-see list! They also offer fantastic demonstrations during New York State Maple Weekends!