GROWING UP IN Whatcom County, Devin Day always wanted to work in a lab; he just didn’t think that lab would be a farm.
Valley Farmstead nestles along the south fork of the Nooksack River, where salmon swim and eagles soar. On clear winter days, the snowy peaks of the Twin Sisters are visible. In autumn, bigleaf maple trees flaunt their gaudy gold, orange and red leaves amid the stately evergreens.
Valley Farmstead got its start about five years ago, when the Days acquired some rabbits — half a dozen does and one buck. As rabbits do, they multiplied. The idea was to breed a premium product that would appeal to high-end restaurants and their affluent customers. The rabbits caught on. Chickens, cows and a small bison herd have since followed.
Meanwhile, Day’s stepdad, Neil McLeod, a former commercial fisherman, was tinkering with maple syrup production. McLeod kept bees until colony collapse deprived him of the honey he liked to stir into his coffee. Maple syrup appealed to his sweet tooth and his innate curiosity. Why, he wondered, was nobody tapping into the Northwest’s bounty of bigleaf maple trees to make syrup?
When McLeod unearthed a small study on syrup production from bigleaf maples done by Oregon State University in 1972, it inspired him to grab his drill and head into the woods. “He came back all excited,” Day recalls. “He said to my mom, ‘Honey, I need a bucket. I need some tubing. What’s your Amazon account? I need some stuff.’ ” McLeod tapped 30 trees the first year and cooked the sap on his home stove. Each year, he tapped more trees and burned fewer batches.
A lot of syrup’s flavor depends on the sap. Bigleaf maple sap has a lower sugar content and more minerals than East Coast maples, so it takes more sap to produce the 66.5% sugar content required for syrup. Our fluctuating weather is a flavor factor, too. The sap not only changes from year to year, but it also varies from the beginning of the season to the end (roughly November to March). Each batch of syrup tastes a little different and can range in color from golden amber to dark brown.
“Neil’s Bigleaf Maple Syrup” was still more or less a hobby when Day packed a few sample bottles to take with him on a sales call at Seattle’s Canlis restaurant. He was there to sell rabbit, but the syrup was a such a hit that Day told McLeod he thought there could be big restaurant demand for it. That same month, McLeod rented a trailer, drove to Wisconsin and came back with more “stuff,” including a commercial-size maple syrup evaporator.
The shiny stainless-steel machine dominates one room of a steeply roofed building that also houses a mill for producing animal feed and a sparkling clean, WSDA-approved facility for processing rabbits and chickens. (Cattle go to a nearby USDA-inspected slaughterhouse.)
Today, Valley Farmstead is a full-time business. The whole family plays a role, including Day’s wife, Miriah, and their four children. The enterprise has grown without accumulating big debt and is almost completely vertically integrated, from breeding and feeding to processing, marketing and sales. They’ve bootstrapped all this; now they want to share what they’ve learned.
Day’s vision is to decentralize the food chain by fostering a “green capital” model. He has been diligently “establishing protocols” and “documenting the metrics,” putting together how-to PDFs on topics like creating your own feed or building your own processing facility and constructing humane rabbit hutches on a small budget. He’s getting ready to open-source the information through blockchain technology so like-minded small farmers can follow his model. It’s called Acerchain, a nod to bigleaf maples’ scientific name.
Instead of a monolithic company that benefits a small group of owners and backers, Day wants to foster a system that spreads the wealth more widely and equitably among many small entrepreneurs. Decentralization also would mitigate the harmful environmental and nutritional effects of factory farming. “A large group of smaller farms would be better for the planet overall,” he says. “Old capitalism is kind of dead. We’re building these systems for next-gen regenerative and sustainable business models.”
Rabbits are a good example. They provide “an almost closed-loop cycle,” says Day. Their manure fertilizes the gardens and hay fields. They are a lean meat, more nutrient-dense than cattle, and they don’t need a lot of space. His seven hoop houses sitting on less than 2 acres can produce the same amount of protein in a season as 50 head of cattle, which take up a lot more land and resources and have a greater impact on the environment.
“Nutrition is a huge thing we are studying,” says Day. They formulate their own feed, freeing them from dependency on commercial food mills. “You are what your animals eat,” he says. When the animal “eats clean,” so does the consumer. He knows exactly what his animals eat and where it comes from. He sources surplus grains from local businesses like Cairnspring Mills. Skagit Valley Malting used to compost barley sprouts, now they go into Valley Farmstead’s feed. “It’s 24% protein,” he says, whereas, “Most commercial feed is low in protein.”
Through better-quality feed, they’ve been able to ready rabbits for market in eight weeks, rather than the usual 12. By testing formulas and nutrients on his bison, he has noticed much less aggression among the herd. Now they’re testing a customized ration for bison, typically a very lean meat, to see whether that would create more marbling, thus more flavor. It could result in the kind of product that commands a premium price, like their rabbit fryers, which sell for $36 each on Valley Farmstead’s website. A 12-ounce bottle of Neil’s Bigleaf Maple Syrup is $42 online. (The Ballard butcher shop Beast and Cleaver also carries it.)
Demand is high and syrup supply is short, even though they put in nearly 3,000 maple taps this year. McLeod says the biggest impediment to expanding production is a lack of trees. Long considered “junk trees,” most maples have been cut down for firewood. Everybody wants to plant Douglas fir, he says, but he has a different idea. “If you take all this land that we grow grass and corn for cows in this valley, which doesn’t make you any money, and plant maple trees, in eight years I can be pulling sap out of those trees. It would be a high-dollar crop.”
To that end, they are working with Enfield Farms, a local berry farmer, to clone their first trees, using cuttings from trees that have high sugar content and produce a lot of sap. “Not many people are planning to grow a forest at my age,” admits McLeod, who is nearing 70. “When I do get to plant my forest, it won’t be a monocrop. I’ll have 80% maple and 20% whatever grows.” That’s green capital at work.