On Feb. 15, the weather in Lodi, New York, hovered in the low 20s and it snowed, but that didn’t stop chocolatier Claire Benjamin from setting up a table to greet customers outside her store. Benjamin owns Rue Claire Lavender Farm and Artisan Chocolates, which she runs from a shop her husband built next to their home.
Cornell impacting New York State
As she had the two previous days, she waited for customers, some of whom had travelled from as far as Rochester and Syracuse, to pick up the Valentine’s Day chocolates they’d ordered online. Between orders, she took refuge from the frigid weather in her car with the engine running.
When her customers arrived, Benjamin served them a crafted blend of hot chocolate and maple sugar, and she chatted with them before they retreated from the cold with their boutique bags.
The Valentine’s Day package, which sold out, debuted two new maple chocolate assortments: a petite bar of cacao bean-shaped dark chocolate with Hawaiian lava salt and local maple sugar and a heart-shaped ruby chocolate; and a hibiscus flower treat, infused with Rue Claire raw honey, strawberry chips and her signature brownie, also sweetened with maple sugar.
Benjamin was recently hired as a contractor by the Cornell Maple Program, administered by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS), to develop recipes for making maple chocolate at a commercial scale. Her efforts fit into a much larger mission from the Cornell Maple Program to develop new maple products to grow the $30 million maple industry in New York state and boost rural economies.
One wing of the program provides entrepreneurs with Cornell maple and food science expertise to develop a wide variety of new products that feature maple as a significant ingredient, which creates new revenue streams and expands market growth.
“Our mission broadly is to support the sustainable growth of maple syrup production,” said Aaron Wightman ’97, co-director of the Cornell Maple Program, who oversees operations at the Arnot Research Forest, a Cornell-owned forest south of Ithaca. The other co-director, Adam Wild, manages the Uihlein Maple Research Forest in Lake Placid, New York, which allows for maple research in a more northerly climate. CALS’ Department of Natural Resources oversees both forests.
The program’s mission is accomplished through research and education. Research explores sugarbush management and sap collection systems, processing quality and efficiency, and new product development. All of the new product information is then disseminated to the public, as part of Cornell’s land grant mission, through workshops, conferences, industry newsletters, publications, webinars, notebooks, recipes and direct networking to businesses and maple producers, to name a few.
The Cornell Maple Program produces an average of 4,500 gallons of syrup per year, which is sold through Cornell outlets. Some of the proceeds fund research, as does support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Acer Access and Development Program and the Renewable Resources Extension Act Capacity Grant; New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets; an endowment; and a mix of other smaller grants.