A man standing on the roof of a sugar house among a set of tubes transporting sap from maple trees.

At Cornell's Arnot Forest sugar house. (Jason Koski / Cornell University)

Cornell Maple Program Sees Acres of Untapped Opportunity

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With its two research forests and state-of-the-art sugar houses, the program aims to support producers across New York State

By Lindsay Lennon

Did you know New York is more than 60% forested? And within those woods, there are more than 300 million untapped maple trees—more than in any other state in the country, even maple-obsessed Vermont?

The folks at the Cornell Maple Program are well aware of those facts. That’s why, in addition to running two research forests and making their own products, they’ve been bringing their show on the road to spread the knowledge—and potential economic gain—of this sweet and sustainable resource.

The program is rooted in Cornell’s identity as a land-grant institution. Part of its mission, says co-director Aaron Wightman ’97, is to help improve the lives of New Yorkers by supporting maple producers across the state “with everything involved with sugar making, from the woods all the way to the marketplace.”

Four bottles of Cornell maple syrup
The Cornell Store sells the Big Red’s own syrup. (Provided)

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, U.S. maple production was booming. Though it was displaced by other sweeteners—like those derived from beets, sugarcane, and corn—it has been regaining traction among discerning consumers. In New York alone, production has more than quadrupled in the last 15 years.

“People are rediscovering maple syrup as a natural sweetener that’s locally and sustainably produced,” says Wightman amid the buzzing machinery in the Arnot Research Forest sugar house, about 17 miles from the Hill in the town of Van Etten. “That represents a big economic opportunity for rural Upstate New York.”

The Arnot Forest is home to 50-plus miles of vacuum tubing, running from about 7,000 trees directly into the recently renovated sugar house. There, a modern reverse osmosis system concentrates the sap before it heads to evaporators to be boiled into syrup.

Up to 16,000 gallons of sap—which yields roughly 400 gallons of syrup—are processed daily at Arnot during the January-through-April production season. The operation is run by three people, but it would require far more if not for the efficient technology that completes about 80% of the work.

Where tubing supplants the once ubiquitous task of collecting sap in buckets, the labor now lies in tapping trees and maintaining and repairing the collection system. “Instead of grandpa in his flannels in the sugar house, sitting over the evaporator, we have commercial food processing facilities,” says Wightman. “It’s not as quaint as it once was.”

A bright yellow maple tree in autumn.
A maple in autumn at Cornell's Uihlein Forest. (Adam Wild)

At the program’s 350-acre Uihlein Maple Research Forest in Lake Placid, program co-director Adam Wild supervises a somewhat cozier operation. The facility’s 1965 wooden sugar house, with its mountain lodge aesthetic, has “a little more of the Adirondack rustic charm,” says Wild.

Nonetheless, the Uihlein Forest employs the same contemporary technology as Arnot for its 7,000 sugar maple and birch taps. Situated in the Adirondack High Peaks tourism hub, its staff regularly engage with visitors, and self-guided tours were recently introduced.

Only three maple research forests exist in the U.S.; Arnot and Uihlein are two of them (the third is managed by the University of Vermont). The program’s own syrup is sold at those sites and via the Cornell Store; through a partnership with the popular Founding Farmers restaurants in the Washington, D.C., area, it supplies syrup to the chain’s farm-to-table eateries.

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But the forests Wightman and Wild oversee represent just a fraction of the opportunity for maple production across the Empire State.

“Even though there is a lot of untapped potential, it has been growing,” says Wild. In fact, he adds, “Some could argue that New York is seeing some of the most growth throughout the maple industry right now.”

That’s why a core part of the program’s mission is to connect with maple producers, helping them navigate the business- and technology-related challenges of modernizing or expanding their operations.

Instead of grandpa in his flannels in the sugar house, sitting over the evaporator, we have commercial food processing facilities.

Aaron Wightman ’97, Maple Program co-director

The program has hosted about 80 workshops for more than 2,000 people across the state. Its website offers a plethora of resources, from an intro class to the Sweet Talk: All Things Maple podcast, as well as a steady stream of research findings on syrup production and sugar bush (maple forest) management. There’s also a library of sweet and savory recipes, from maple teriyaki pork chops to boozy maple rosé popsicles.

Catherine Belisle, a product development food scientist based at the Arnot Forest, spends most of her days formulating innovative applications for maple across the food and beverage industry, often in tandem with student researchers.

She shares her recipes and guidelines with producers to help expand their markets beyond syrup and into what’s known as “maple value added” products, like sports drinks, marshmallows, kombucha, and chocolate.

A brown maple sugar house with steam coming off the roof.
An early season boil at Uihlein’s sugar house. (Adam Wild)

Belisle’s current focus is creating food and beverages that use maple as the only sweetener. She’ll be testing a maple sap beverage—similar to coconut water—with Ithaca consumers this year.

Her personal favorite creation as of late: Mappleau, a sweet dessert liqueur with caramel and woody barrel oak notes, that she developed with then-student researcher Christian Mercado, MFS ’21.

Wightman’s family has produced maple in rural Allegany County for generations. Compared to the large forests he and Wild tend for Cornell, his little sugar bush is a drop in a sap bucket (which many smaller producers still use, in addition to tubing). It’s a glimpse of what’s possible, he says, for hundreds of other families like his.

“Making maple syrup is harder than it used to be—it’s more industrial, in some ways—but it’s still the dream job,” says Wightman, who first visited Arnot as an undergrad and is now pursuing a PhD in natural resources at Cornell. “It’s been exciting to come full circle, take over this facility, and grow it into something that’s beneficial to New York.”

He squints a bit, then smiles widely.

“I’m probably not articulating it well,” he says. “I was in the sugar house ’til almost 2 a.m.”

Top: Wightman inspects tubing atop the Arnot sugar house in 2018, before a recent renovation. (All images by Jason Koski / Cornell University unless otherwise indicated.)

Published February 28, 2023


  1. Maureen barrett

    Brilliant article and have been to UHLEIN facility many many times had private tour and the place is incredible and ADAM was incredible and it’s the only place we buy our syrup we do a mtn. Bike week and maple syrup trip 4x’s per year

  2. Kimberly Fisher, Class of 2006

    As a Cornell alum who frequently visits the Adirondacks, I love visiting your sugar shack and buying maple syrup. The dark and very dark varieties are my favorite! It’s the best maple syrup around.

  3. Richard Poznysz, Class of 1969

    A severe test of one’s personal loyalty.

    I am class of 1969 from the Arts and Sciences school majoring in Government. Thanks to Cornell’s truly unique coarse offerings, I also enjoyed taking a few courses in the Agriculture School for the pure pleasure of it.

    My wife and I are part time residents of Woodstock, Vermont. I am friendly with a number of the local Maple Syrup growers and always buy my syrup directly from them.

    Now, I find myself in a severe test of personal loyalty. Do I buy my maple products from my very fondly remembered alma mater? Or do I buy my maple products from personal friends and neighbors? How do I cut into this Gordian Knot?

    In any event, thank you for a great article.

  4. Carl Anderson, Class of 1968

    I buy Uihlein syrup by the gallon. I started doing so on a visit to the Adirondacks years ago, but for the past several years I’ve been ordering online and having it shipped. The service is great – matching the quality of the product.

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