Cochran's Ski Area in Richmond, Vermont, is known for turning out world-class ski racers. Now, four of those skiers are hoping to make it famous for producing something else: pure Vermont maple syrup.
Micky and Ginny Cochran put a rope tow on the hill behind their house in 1961, and on those slopes raised four kids, all of whom raced for the U.S. Ski Team. Two of the children, Bobby and Barbara Ann, won world championships, and Barbara Ann won the gold medal at the 1972 Winter Olympics.
Over time, the family also acquired much of the land surrounding their property. "The ski area sits on probably 70 acres," says Roger Brown, Micky and Ginny's grandson, and one of four Cochran grandchildren making Slopeside Syrup. "The family owns a little over 700 acres, so there was a lot of unused land." The remaining land is in a state program called Current Use, which provides tax incentives for keeping land as open space as long as you manage the forest. A state forester working with that program recommended they consider sugar farming. So Brown, his brother Doug, and cousins Jim Cochran and Tim Kelley jumped in.
"We used snowshoes the first year or two, and they just suck," Brown laughs. "We finally realized skis are a lot more maneuverable. You can get around a lot faster, and at the end of the day you take your skins off and ski down."
Brown, 33, spent two years on the U.S. Ski Team, but retired from racing after an injury in 2008. Married and living in Denver, Brown was looking for a way to get back to Vermont. Doug, 29, raced for St. Lawrence University and was teaching school in Massachusetts. Jim, 33, went to two Olympics ('06 and '10), and was still racing when Slopeside launched in 2010. Tim, 28, is still competing on the World Cup. "We all kind of looked at each other and said, 'Well, let's do it.' Even though we didn't know much," Brown says. "We like being outside, sugaring looked like fun, so let's give it a shot."
The cousins tapped 6,000 trees their first summer and added another 10,000 taps the following year. Brown estimates they are up to 23,000 taps this year. It's a modern sugar farm, with miles of tubing connecting the trees (some of which run under the ski area) and leading to the sugarhouse where an oil-fired evaporator boils it down to syrup. "We have a whole series of expensive pumps and tubing systems and machines for getting water up on the hill," Brown says, referring to snowmaking at Cochran's ski area. "Then we have a whole other system of pumps and tubing and machines for getting probably some of the same water back off the hill."
Brown draws other parallels between sugar farming and running a ski area. "The advice one old sugar maker gave us when we started was, 'If you like being outside, you'll do well, because the woods are where you make your money,'" Brown says. "I think you can say the same thing about running a ski area. You gotta love being on the hill and skiing and watching kids ski. With both, you spend some time being wet and cold."
When the snow is deep, Brown—who has traded in his race clamps for tele bindings—and his cousins work the farm on skis. "We used snowshoes the first year or two, and they just suck," Brown laughs. "We finally realized skis are a lot more maneuverable. You can get around a lot faster, and at the end of the day you take your skins off and ski down."
Slopeside has a diverse distribution. They sell direct to consumer either at the farm or online, wholesale to retail outlets in Tahoe, Mammoth, Jackson Hole, Park City, and throughout Colorado and New England, and sell bulk to restaurants including the Snooze chain in Colorado, California, and Arizona. They've also recently launched a project with pro cyclist Ted King called Untapped, where they package pure maple syrup in 100-calorie packets to be consumed like an energy gel.