Mark Soukup was a farm-raised country boy who found himself spending more time in front of a computer screen in New York City than he ever thought he would when he and his wife, Jennifer, took over their family’s farm. Today, Mark and Jennifer have the opposite problem: They rarely have the chance to get away from their farm business. But a visit to their Dover Plains farm and a conversation with the couple is convincing evidence that they made the right decision.
Soukup Farms produces maple products, hay, and various other specialty crops, such as some especially colorful and warty pumpkins. They are third-generation farmers, their family’s land previously serving as Mark’s grandparents’ dairy beginning in 1945 and his parents’ beef and hay farm from 1987 on. The farm boasts a new store and hosts several public events during the year, breathing new life into their corner of the Harlem Valley. Their most popular annual event, a Harvest Festival, brings a couple thousand visitors to the farm for free hay rides, a hay maze, a petting zoo, local food, and what the Soukups assure is among the best views of fall foliage in the region. This year’s Harvest Festival takes place on October 21 – 22.
Small Farm Renaissance
The Soukups’ impact on the community does not stop at their property line. They are leading a small farm renaissance in southern Dutchess County, forming the Harlem Valley Food & Farm Alliance along with Hoofprint Cheese Company, Locust Hill Market, JSK Cattle Company, and Brookby Dairy. The alliance ‘hopes to develop a robust and local food economy offering security for their families, the land, and the next generation of farmers.” The group’s first Farm Day, on October 1 featured “a day of farm fun” at each of the members’ properties.
For the non-farmers among us, the decision to switch from a farm that focused on growing and harvesting grass to one that produces maple products would seem a no-brainer. Yet collecting sap and turning it into syrup requires a fully separate set of equipment, facilities, and skills from hay production. Even the customer markets have no overlap: farmers buy hay wholesale, whereas maple syrup is typically marketed directly to retail customers at markets or from a farm store. That the Soukups maintain both businesses while still finding time to raise their kids is a testament to the energy that young and beginning farmers bring to their trade.
Maple: No Longer a ‘Hobby’ Trade
Maple production traditionally accompanied dairy farming as a hobby trade. Mark Soukup explains, “It was a way to make money in the spring when you weren’t busy with crops yet.” Jennifer, who has a culinary education, identified the opportunity of growing the maple production as a business in itself, more than just a hobby enterprise. The couple was surprised by the great feedback and popularity they received by selling maple syrup at markets, and then by a New York Maple Association maple weekend event at their farm in 2014. From there, they invested in the business, and it took off. A new production building, which doubles as a farm store, and commercial scale sap evaporator allowed the maple operation to grow to scale, but Mark now insists, “Once we finished building, it was already not big enough.”
All of Soukup Farms’ maple sap comes from their 300-acre maple grove in Dover Plains. They used about 27 cords of firewood to fuel their sap evaporator last year, all of which was also sourced from their property, and was split themselves. Mark says, “It’s certainly cheaper than oil, and I don’t think we’ve had to cut down a tree.” Fallen timber has been enough to satisfy their fuel needs so far. Besides wood, sap, and the evaporator, the maple trade just requires hours upon hours of hard work as winter turns to spring.
To experience Soukup Farms – and their great maple syrup without all the hard work – visit their farm store, find their syrup at local retailers, or, the best option, visit their Harvest Festival in October. You and your family will be in for a sweet surprise.
Soukukp Farms is located at 271 Halls Corners Road, Dover Plains, NY. To learn more online, visit: SoukupFarms.com.