Slow sales sap SE syrup

Slump, fuel and personnel costs, big inventory all add up

Posted: Wednesday, April 17, 2002

Slow sales last year have put a damper this spring's production of Birch Boy birch syrup products near Haines, according to the operation's owners.

Daniel and Susan Humphrey, who run Birch Boy Products about 20 miles north of Haines, are not going into full syrup production this year because of a large back stock and the high cost of completing a season.

"It's a big upfront expense that, if we have the inventory, we can't justify," Daniel Humphrey said.

It takes $1,000 to $2,000 in fuel alone to complete a season, plus the cost of hiring and feeding workers who help collect the sap and monitor operations, he said.

The Humphreys said sales last year in Haines were down by two-thirds from 2000.

"Haines has been our biggest market in years past," Daniel Humphrey said. "In our best year, Haines made up about 25 percent of our sales."

The Humphreys said much of the drop came from storeowners' concerns about the market rather than actual conditions.

"The shops didn't have confidence in the market to build up inventory," Daniel Humphrey said. "They just didn't want to take the risk up front. Those who took a risk did fine with it."

Since last year's production assumed some expansion of sales, there was a large stock left at the end of the season. That syrup - which they said keeps extremely well - will be marketed to this summer's crowds.

Although the Humphreys said they are disappointed about this season's lack of production, they said the break will give them the opportunity to help the birch syrup operations of friends in other parts of the state.

There are four other commercial birch syrup operations in Alaska, in the Anchorage-to-Fairbanks corridor. The Humphreys also may offer demonstrations or an open house for local students.

The Humphreys said Birch Boy's diversification through the years will sustain it during the downturn. The company offers many varieties of syrup, which are sold in markets across Southeast, as far away as Anchorage and Seattle, and through the company's Web site.

"If we hadn't been as aggressive in getting new (products and markets), we would be in bad shape now," Daniel Humphrey said.

"I'm not worried," Susan Humphrey said. "We've got a lot of orders coming in. ... The Web site orders I do get, they're $50 or $100 orders. They're not just single bottles. It's a commitment."

Daniel Humphrey said unlike many tourist products, birch syrup has the advantage of being part of the local food market year-round - with a unique background.

"It's a small market for us, but it's constant, consistent," he said. "Wild food is tastier. It has a more interesting history."

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