Dolores Neill and Alan Wolf visited Highland County in the Allegheny Mountains of Virginia from more than three hours away for the 60th Annual Highland Maple Festival last March.
Over the course of two days, Neill and Wolf toured seven sugar camps where producers collect sap from maple trees and boil it down to create pure maple syrup. Wolf said he learned a lot during the tours, and they bought lots of pure maple syrup.
“Everyone is so enthusiastic about what they do,” said Wolf.
Neill said she had pancakes during the festival visit and trout from a local restaurant. Neill also bought buckwheat flour to make pancakes.
Dorothy Stephenson, Highland County Chamber of Commerce executive director, said the festival draws 50,000 to 70,000 people each year. The event started in 1958 with one sugar camp open to the public. Today 10 sugar camps participate in the festival.
Stephenson said she’s grown up with the festival; this was her fourth year serving as its executive director.
“Maple syrup is made in other places in Virginia, but we’re the most concentrated group of producers because of our climate and elevation.”
Fair Lawn Farm in Monterey, Virginia, the county seat, was among the sugar camps offering tours during the festival last year. The farm, owned by Tim and Terry Duff, offers tours, pumpkin patches and hayrides. They built their sugarhouse in 2005.
Tim said that to collect sap from maple trees to produce syrup, the ideal weather is below freezing temperatures at night and warmer and above freezing temperatures during the day. Those conditions are often January through March in Highland County.
“That daily change in temperature causes the sugar water to run,” he said.
Tim said they hang 140 buckets on maple trees to collect sap. It looks clear when it comes out of the tree at 2 percent sugar; the Duffs evaporate the water out until it’s about 20 percent sugar.
The farm uses buckets to educate people on a traditional method of collecting sap. Commercial producers use tubing, which is more efficient than relying on buckets.
Some who’ve toured the farm have asked when he adds color, flavor or sugar to the sugar water to make syrup.
“You don’t,” he said. “The tree gives the sugar and the natural color; it all darkens as you cook it. The sugar becomes more intense, and the flavor comes out.”
In Monterey, vendors sold maple syrup along with other crafts and products. Adam Taylor, who co-owns Frostmore Farm in Dunmore, West Virginia, with his wife Rachel, said they first visited the festival as spectators and are now vendors. They took their syrup production from hobby to business in 2013.
The Taylors offered pure maple syrup, maple cotton candy, maple cream and leaf-shaped maple candy.
Producers such as Ronnie Moyers, who co-owns Laurel Fork Sapsuckers in Highland County, said the climate in the county is cooler than other parts of Virginia due to the higher elevation. Laurel Fork Sapsuckers’ elevation is 3,800 to 4,200 feet.
“Making maple syrup, you’re at the mercy of mother nature; the weather will either make it happen or stop it from happening,” he said.
Moyers uses tubing and buckets on his farm. Last year, they had 1,147 taps on trees. Early in the season, Moyers said the sugar content was a little more than 1 percent sugar. It took more than 80 gallons of sap to produce 1 gallon of syrup. “Basically, you’re just evaporating as quickly as you can. You’re evaporating the water from the sugar water until you get a concentrate; then you have your delicious syrup.”
As the season progressed, the sap content increased to 2 percent sugar. Then it took 42 gallons to make 1 gallon of syrup.
In the past two years, Moyers said they have switched to smaller tubes. “We were pulling 50 percent more per tap than the larger tubing,” he said.
Moyers’ daughter, Missy Moyers-Jarrells, is a third-generation maple producer at Laurel Fork Sapsuckers. She said the farm measures sap volume and sap sweetness on an unmanaged plot of land and compares that data to an area that was sustainably harvested 17 years ago.
“The reason for this study is to see if harvesting timber — taking out overly mature trees and damaged trees — will increase the sugar content and volume of sap,” said Moyers-Jarrells. “By removing some of the trees, you create space in the canopy which allows the maple trees to capture more sunlight; through photosynthesis the tree can produce higher sugar contents in the spring.”
Moyers-Jarrells said the trees that were sustainably harvested grew at a faster rate than the unmanaged land.
“Sugar content will get much better when you take competition out,” Moyers-Jarrells said. “So you only want so many maple trees per acre. Creating a canopy — that makes the best and sweetest sugar water.”
Another Highland County producer, Jay Eagle, who owns Eagle’s Sugar Camp in Doe Hill, is the fifth generation to produce pure maple syrup. Eagle’s Sugar Camp has 200 acres, and Eagle leases additional acreage to collect sap from the trees.
Eagle uses 400 buckets and tubing to collect sap. Eagle said he taps 12,000 trees. He starts collecting at the end of January and collects until it’s too warm and the sap stops running.
“I’ve had good years; it was unreal making syrup. And I had two years I didn’t break even; that was rough,” he said.
During the season he offers maple cream, maple sugar, maple fudge and maple donuts, in addition to syrup. “Today my sales are matching my production,” said Eagle. “Now I’m frustrated I’m not making enough. Usually it’s all gone around Christmas.”
Eagle said the 2018 season was short because of warm days: for more than a week, his farm saw temperatures in the 70s during the days and 50 degrees during the nights.
“You have four to six weeks normally. A good season is eight to 10 weeks. You run yourself ragged, and during the festival I have to hire 14 people to help.”
Last year, on the festival’s first Saturday Eagle said his farm sold 400 gallons of maple syrup. “That’s a lot of syrup,” he said. “People come from Roanoke, from different states, overseas. We’ve shipped to seven different countries.”
Eagle said the farm is open year-round for people who want to visit.
“If they like maple syrup, and they don’t know how it’s done, come to Highland County,” said Eagle. “It’s a family outing — bring a picnic lunch. If it’s in season, you’ll see the sugar water running.”
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