Riding the crest of the maple sugar wave
by Will Lindner
David Marvin (right) is the owner, founder, and president of Butternut Mountain Farm in Morrisville. It’s a diversified maple products provider that packages over 50 percent of Vermont’s maple crop, plus syrup from other Northeastern states and Quebec and its own 17,000 taps. John Kingston, CEO, was brought on in 2007 to lend business and financial expertise.
David Marvin first got interested in producing maple syrup during the 1960s when he was a forestry student at the University of Vermont and the maple syrup industry was in the doldrums.
Today, Marvin’s Butternut Mountain Farm is a thriving, diversified maple products provider with a production and processing plant in Morrisville. As for Vermont’s maple syrup industry, it has attained unprecedented stature in terms of production, market expansion, and outlook for its signature Vermont product.
Who’s to say? There are lots of well-established and successful sugarhouses and retail outlets (often co-located) that are run by other committed entrepreneurs — many of them cornerstone businesses in their communities and magnets for both tourists and locals with a yen for this tasty and newly appreciated product. There’s a Vermont Maple Industry Council, and the Proctor Maple Research Center, associated with UVM, has worked for decades to further the industry’s development. One of its co-founders in the 1940s was Prof. James Wallace Marvin, Ph.D. — David Marvin’s father.
So part chicken, part egg, perhaps.
But what’s certain is that the Marvin family’s Butternut Mountain Farm has ridden the crest of a wave that has carried the maple sugar industry to new levels of popularity, profitability, and respect. The reasons are myriad. Production has skyrocketed as newer technologies for extracting sap from maple trees, collecting it, and distilling it to maple syrup have dramatically increased yields and lowered costs. Also important, Marvin’s daughter, Emma, points out, is that maple sweeteners fit well into today’s cultural profile, in which people are looking for natural foods, sustainably produced. Maple’s product line has therefore expanded beyond the traditional syrup and candies; in such forms as granulated maple sugar, it has become a production ingredient in food-industry recipes.
That’s been a good wave to catch, but it’s distinct from their own maple sugaring. While that aspect of their operations has grown, too — from 4,000 taps in the beginning to 17,000 taps today in Johnson — it’s still less than a measly 1 percent of the syrup that moves through their plant doors in Morrisville.
“But we handle more than 50 percent of the Vermont crop,” Marvin emphasizes “Nobody handles as much Vermont maple as we do.”
Sam Cutting IV, president of Dakin Farm, one of Vermont’s best-known maple-products retailers, has a long personal and business relationship with the Marvin family and Butternut Mountain Farm. His father, Sam Cutting III, helped Marvin as an advisor and board member for his fledgling enterprise 40 years ago. Sam IV has seen Butternut Mountain evolve into a company that provides niche services of great importance to himself and others.
“We pack most of our own maple syrup at Dakin,” Cutting explains, “and we deal with farmers directly. But Butternut is always there for a safety net; like in the middle of the Christmas season and we’re shipping 5,000 packages a day and run short, they can pack it, in our jugs, and back us up.”
The two companies diversify, but in different ways. Dakin specializes in smoked meats and cheeses, but its stores also sell maple sugar and maple butter, and those come from Butternut. Butternut also has a capacity for innovation that serves its customers well. When a cannery in Maine ceased producing a specialty mustard that Dakin sells, Marvin and his staff visited Maine, learned the recipe, and replaced that product for Dakin Farm.
Relationships like these have earned Butternut Mountain Farm both stature and respect in an industry potentially fraught with minefields (eager producers and vendors competing in a small state with a compressed marketing season). Marvin’s attitude goes a long way toward explaining his success.
“I’ve always thought it better to collaborate and cooperate than to compete,” he says. He started out in 1973 on some 400 acres in Johnson — 100 acres in Christmas trees — nudged against namesake Butternut Mountain, and his company now occupies a bustling, 75,000-square-foot production, shipping, and storage facility in Morrisville’s industrial park, with 93 employees, two “children” (both are married, with children of their own) assuming major roles in the enterprise, and a CEO, John Kingston, lending business and financial expertise.
This company profile may well attest to the strategic wisdom of cooperation.
Marvin was born in 1947 and raised by his father (the professor) and mother in South Burlington, which was a largely rural area in those days. He developed an early interest in agriculture, “but I didn’t want to be a dairy farmer,” he says.
Instead, following his studies at UVM, he became a consulting forester, and eventually developed a clientele of 450 landowners, with 70,000 acres under his supervision. In 1972 he purchased the Johnson property, which adjoined land his parents owned, and the next year started tapping trees. Additional purchases have brought his holdings there to 1,200 acres, and his husbandry of it has produced a raft of awards, such as National Outstanding Tree Farmer of the Year in 1984 and Lamoille County Forest Steward of the Year in 1995.
This branch of the Butternut portfolio endures, with Marvin’s son, Ira, who has a degree in agriculture from UVM, serving as facilities and farm manager.
“I don’t think you’ll find timberland any more intensively managed than what we have done,” Marvin says proudly.
Marvin and his wife, Lucy, from Troy, Vt., were married in 1979. Since their children were born (Emma in 1980 and Ira in 1983), their business has always had a family component.
“Every Friday we made our deliveries together in a station wagon, and later a van, to St. Johnsbury and the Northeast Kingdom,” he remembers.
It seems both children gravitated toward their father’s sphere of interest. Emma earned a degree in natural resources management from Cornell University, and performed ecological research for the Vermont Leadership Center (now called NorthWoods Stewardship Center) in East Charleston before becoming director of marketing for Butternut Mountain Farm. She oversees its country store in Johnson and a second retail outlet at Northeast Kingdom Tasting Center in Newport.
Emma’s also deeply embedded in operations at the Morrisville facility. Here, maple syrup is imported — not just from Vermont, but other Northeastern states and Quebec — safely stored until a customer needs it, and portions are turned into alternative products. Emma stresses that the integrity of the company rests on tracking every container brought in, so that customers who want Vermont maple syrup get Vermont maple syrup, with the same assurances for other characteristics such as color and whether it’s organic. (Butternut Mountain Farm’s own product has that certification.)
At 67, Marvin has pulled back, moderately. (“You know what they say about sugar makers,” quips Emma. “They never die; they just evaporate.”) He now entrusts the company to CEO John Kingston, a Connecticut native and refugee from the banking industry who migrated north. In 2007, when Marvin offered him the job of CFO, he leapt at the chance to engage in something entirely out of his sphere of experience. He took over as CEO about two years ago.
“We needed someone good at analytics,” says Marvin. “I’m pretty good at business, but John has talents in forecasting, budgeting, and tightening up our financial operations. John is running the ship,” he proclaims. Kingston, who lives with his wife and children in Jericho, says humbly, “David’s been good enough to give me increasing responsibilities.”
As important to this family (all of whom now live in Hyde Park) as their multi-faceted business is their commitment to the environment that provides the nectar that provides their livelihood. Marvin has served on the boards of the most influential nonprofits and government-supported agencies dedicated to protecting and preserving Vermont’s productive landscape. As they grow older, Emma and Ira are falling in right behind.
“Any organization that gets David on their board is lucky to have him,” says Gus Selig, executive director of the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board. Marvin presently serves on the agency’s board of directors. Selig, meanwhile, is an ex-officio member on the Working Lands Enterprise board, where he has come to know fellow board member Emma Marvin.
“She didn’t fall far from the tree,” he says. “She’s insightful, smart, hard-working, and a problem-solver.”
Ira recently joined the board at the Vermont Natural Resources Council, and Kingston is vice president of the Lamoille Economic Development Corp.
Then there’s the Vermont Land Trust. The Marvins have conserved their sugar bush with VLT, but crucially for Gil Livingston, Marvin was board chair when Livingston became the organization’s president. He holds Marvin in great esteem as a mentor.
“Beyond that, though,” Livingston adds, “there are many dairy farmers who, as a substantial component of their income, sugar and sell to Butternut Mountain Farm. David is beyond ethical in those relationships. The fact that he’s expanding markets and diversifying maple products has made Butternut Mountain Farm a success, but he’s also provided a reliable partnership for conserved-land owners who see maple syrup as a central component of why they own and live on their land.”
Marvin sees this as an eminently practical arrangement. “If we don’t take care of the woodlands that supply us, we’re not going to have a future.” •