There’s gold in those West Virginia maples
BRUCETON MILLS, W.Va. — Several years ago, Keith Heasley was at West Virginia University when one of his students mentioned he was tapping maple trees outside his Morgantown apartment building for syrup.
It occurred to Heasley that he too had maples — loads of them — behind his home, and he immediately envisioned a new hobby.
“I couldn’t tell you the difference between a sugar (maple) and a red then,” the 60-year-old retired professor of mining engineering said, chuckling.
Heasley’s not alone. Encouraged by technological innovations, state government support and a robust local food movement, a growing number of West Virginians are tapping maple trees and producing syrup. Existing syrup farms are also expanding.
The number of maple taps in the state rose from about 21,000 in 2002 to about 75,000 in 2017, according to USDA data, and the number of maple farms almost doubled to nearly 100. Still, producers have only scratched the surface of the state’s potential. Future Generations University, which recently received a grant to help expand production in West Virginia, estimates that less than 1 percent of the state’s maples have been tapped.
Over the last four years, Heasley has quickly grown his operation into a brand — Heasley Homestead — and he’s president of the West Virginia Maple Syrup Producers Association, launched in 2013 to organize the industry’s growing community. Many producers, he said, are just like him — expanding each year to satisfy consumers eager for a new local food product.
“Why are we buying maple syrup (made elsewhere) when we’ve got maple trees in West Virginia?” Heasley said.
Though the vast majority of maple syrup is produced in New England and Canada, the sweetener has a long legacy in West Virginia and greater Appalachia. Maple tapping there stretches back thousands of years to Native Americans, who first cut V-shapes into the base of maple trees to drain sap into wooden buckets.
The trees, which are tapped after 30 to 40 years of growth, produce starch from May through August, which is stored in their roots. When winter begins to thaw, the starch is converted into sucrose and circulated through the tree before the growing season. Sap is harvested from early February through mid-March (earlier than New England’s season) when the weather provides ideally warm days and freezing nights. A maple tree can produce between 6 and 15 pounds of sap in a single day.
Ricky and Sam Harper are also new entrants to the industry. A neighbor told Ricky Harper for years that he should take advantage of the maple trees on his family’s hilly farm in Sugar Grove. In the early 1900s, the Harper family tapped them to make syrup but stopped after the farm switched focus to beef cattle. The trees were dormant for most of the last century.
But in 2013, Sam, his wife, encouraged him to re-tap the trees, he said. They traveled to Vermont and learned about production. A company that sells evaporators, which remove water from sap, visited their home shortly thereafter and thought their location was ideal.
They went big from the start. The Harpers took out loans, quickly built a sugar shack in November and tapped more than 3,000 trees. Cool Hollow Maple Farm’s first season was in 2014.
“Until we made it here, I’d actually never seen it made,” said Ricky, also a full-time teacher. “I just knew that it tasted good.”
They’re now up to 5,000 taps. This year, they produced 1,700 gallons of syrup, most of which they sold wholesale. They’ve also developed a diverse array of value-added products, including maple cream, maple-sweetened apple butter and maple-glazed nuts, a popular seller. They’re available at stores across the state, and the couple sells at festivals as well.
“I feel like the quality of maple syrup in West Virginia is just as good as anywhere in the world,” Harper said. “I credit that to our ground. We have mostly limestone on the ground, which mineralizes our syrup very heavily and gives it extra flavor.”
As more people across the state began tapping maples in recent years, West Virginia’s Department of Agriculture saw an opportunity to boost the industry, said Cindy Martel, a state agricultural marketing specialist. The department used several hundred thousand dollars of USDA grants to pay for research, marketing and consumer education.
Part of that will help pay for a partnership between the state, the producers association and Virginia Tech to create a Southern Syrup Research Institute at West Virginia University. The initiative, launched last year, will head up production research tailored to the region’s Mid-Atlantic climate.
Future Generations University in Pendleton County, through another partnership with the state, has been researching issues such as the timing of tapping in West Virginia, the effects of forest management on sap yields and the potential of producing syrup from sycamore, walnut and birch trees. It’s also offering certificate courses in syrup production.
“There’s a lot of pieces that are all working together. Huge interest, but also we’re trying to back it up by being very solid with the best practices,” Martel said. “You’re looking at a crop that has a short harvest time, and that’s exacerbated by the climate of the south.”
For the last three years, the agriculture department has also helped the producers association promote and expand Mountain State Maple Days, a statewide celebration held on two days during harvest season at sugarhouses where the sap is processed and other businesses such as restaurants and distilleries that use local maple syrup in dishes and products. Workshops that teach consumers about harvest and processing are also held at several locations.
Up to 300 people come to Heasley’s home on Maple Days, where he introduces them to his growing line of products, including decorative bottles of maple syrup, maple sugar and hard maple candies molded in the shape of maple leaves or West Virginia University’s logo. A nearby brewery that buys up to 4 gallons of his syrup every month for BBQ sauce, cinnamon rolls and other items in its restaurant also participated in Maple Days last year.
“We had a lot of people come here and then go over there,” Heasley said.
The goal is to grow demand for syrup and in the minds of more consumers associate the state with the product, Martel said. So far, it’s working.
“I would be hard-pressed right now to even find a barrel of this year’s crop,” she said. “That’s a good problem to have. It certainly speaks to the potential of the industry.”
Technology is also boosting regional syrup production. Reverse osmosis machines, developed in the 1940s but only popularized within the last several decades, have greatly improved production efficiency, which is crucial to Appalachian syrup makers, Heasley said. Sap from the maples near his home is about 1 percent sugar, half what producers in New England get from their maples.
“It means I need twice as much sap to get the same amount of sugar,” he said.
That would require twice as much firewood and fuel to boil it down, significantly driving up costs. Instead, Heasley first uses a reverse osmosis machine, which pushes the sap through sensitive membranes, removing most of its water. After that process is complete, the sap is about 14% sugar, he said.
“At 1 percent, I’d have to boil 100 gallons of sap to get a gallon of syrup,” he said. “At 14 percent, I have to boil 6 gallons of syrup. So, that’s part of the new technology that allows me to get away with lower-quality sap.”
Tubing has also been a critical innovation. Decades ago, syrup producers placed jugs or buckets beneath tapped trees, waited for them to fill with sap and carried them to their sugar shack for processing — a laborious process for anyone with more than a handful of taps. Now, producers interconnect their trees with a maze of plastic tubing that typically winds its way to the sugar shack, using gravity and vacuum pumps to move the sap.
In West Virginia, many syrup producers have an advantage because they can send their tubes down a hill or mountain, Heasley said. They’re able to use less expensive, narrower tubing, which fills with sap and creates a natural vacuum that requires no pump, he said.
Where production in West Virginia goes from here is debatable. Despite the state’s efforts, Ricky Harper said he thinks the regional market may be topping off. There’s also an international glut of syrup pushing down prices, said David Briggs, president of the North American Maple Syrup Council, which represents 16 maple-producing states and Canadian provinces.
“We’ve got to find more markets for maple syrup and its products,” he said. “We’ve had some really good crops over the last several years.”
West Virginia producers, in contrast, are doing remarkably well. Syrup production in the state nearly doubled last year to 14,000 gallons, according to state agriculture department data released last month.
The average price per gallon in the state rose 22 percent to $44.60 — much higher than the national average of $33, state officials said. Many producers are fetching higher prices by retailing their syrup and incorporating it into more expensive value-added products.
“Collaboration and hard work have led to the continued growth of our maple syrup industry,” Agriculture Commissioner Kent Leonhardt said in a statement. “Over the last few years, we have seen more and more people jump at the opportunity to start their own business.”
But long term climate change is a growing concern for a crop so sensitive to temperature. New England producers are hoping technology will keep them in business when their climate warms and reduces the number of freezing nights essential to maple production.
In 2008, Maryland’s government produced a climate change report that predicted maple, beech and birch forests in Western Maryland — and presumably West Virginia — will eventually retreat northward as pine trees move in from the south.
But in Bruceton Mills, Heasley’s tapped 1,400 trees. He said he made 480 gallons of syrup last year and, on average, sold it for about $70 a gallon to restaurants, stores, breweries and a winery. He never expected it to grow so fast.
“It’s been good for me,” he said, smiling.
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