Local Hero Profile: South Face Farm

Mar 12 2014

By Jenny Miller Sechler, CISA Volunteer
Published in CISA’s March 2014 E-newsletter (Sign up here!)

Visit South Face Farm’s website.

Tom McCrumm of South Face Farm has a deep reverence for the art and the history of maple sugaring. “Maple sugar is the original food crop of North America,” he explains, noting that both wheat and corn were imports to this continent. There was a time when schools were closed for the first week or two of sugaring season because everyone was out tapping the trees. Talking to McCrumm, you begin to believe he wishes this were still the case. “What’s not to like about maple sugaring?” he asks. “It’s magic. You drill a hole in a tree and a tasteless, colorless liquid comes out and you boil it into maple syrup.”

Yet even McCrumm acknowledges that while maple sugaring is simple, the industry is challenging. It uses a lot of energy, lasts maybe six weeks a year, and is dependent on the vicissitudes of weather, as well as the farmer’s ability to market his or her product. Fortunately McCrumm knows how to make things work. “You give me a pocket knife and a paperclip and I can fix most anything,” he says. McCrumm’s South Face farm sugarhouse is a tradition in the lives of many families, who return for pancakes, fritters, and maple syrup season after season.

By the time McCrumm and his wife, Judy Haupt, bought South Face in 1984, McCrumm had seen his fair share of maple sugar farms, enough to know what worked and what didn’t. McCrumm started out working on a friend’s farm in Vermont, and later bought some land in the mountains of Virginia, where he tapped a few trees and boiled sap on his stove top while continuing to work with other maple sugar producers. McCrumm quickly assessed what he needed to do when he finally started his own maple sugaring business. “I knew I didn’t want to just make maple syrup but also wanted to have a roadside attraction, sugar house, restaurant, some way to directly market to the consumer.” Not only did McCrumm see this as the way to make a profit in the maple industry, he also saw how this kind of agritourism fit into the history of maple sugar production in America. “The maple syrup business has been doing this pretty much forever because it’s such a short term, magical, traditional process.”

McCrumm moved to Massachusetts in the early 1980s to be with Haupt, his high school sweetheart. Shortly after they bought South Face, they set to work to make the business their own. The land had long been used for maple sugaring. Some of the trees on the property had been tapped for at least a hundred years, and the tumbled remains of several old sugarhouses were scattered throughout the woods. The land also came with the august influence of Linwood Lesure, an innovator in the maple industry who previously owned the property and sold Christmas trees and maple syrup for years, establishing a ready consumer base for McCrumm and Haupt.

McCrumm’s South Face Farm syrup was first available in 1986. After that first season, McCrumm took “my farmer’s hat off, put my marketing hat on and started beating the streets.” Out of respect for established maple producers, McCrumm took his wares to farm stands and stores outside of the Pioneer Valley and focused on places that were not already selling Massachusetts maple syrup.  As he developed a consumer base, he and Haupt also set to work establishing the sugarhouse restaurant, which opened for business in 1987. The restaurant is now incredibly successful. On busy weekends, South Face serves up to 700 people. “We are particularly known for our fritters and French toast,” says Haupt, but their menu hosts a bevy of delicious breakfast treats begging for maple syrup and maple cream, as well as eggs, bacon, sausage, maple milkshakes, and maple sugar donuts. Increased energy and production efficiency have also helped assure the business’ success.

After 28 years in business, McCrumm is ready to wind down. The South Face Sugarhouse restaurant will be closing its doors after this year. But McCrumm is not ready to give up sugaring entirely. He will probably be tapping trees for many years to come. “Yesterday I was in the woods,” he describes. “A friend was helping me and the snow was deep and firm. We were heading back to the house, the sun was setting and the snow was white and all the sap lines were tight and I said, ‘I love this time of year.’” Then, perhaps as a reflection of the varied nature of maple sugar season, the peaceful time in the woods and the active, boisterous weekends at the sugarhouse restaurant, McCrumm’s tone shifts and he adds, “I’m a grown man and I get to play in the woods all day. Plus, I’m making something magic.”

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