In popular imagination, maple syrup is a product of the cold north. The mind goes to red flannel, rosy cheeks, spiles leaking raw maple sap into buckets and wholesome, Currier and Ives-style scenarios of large, merry families working together in frosty weather to make that amber nectar.
A full 6% of the world’s maple syrup supply comes from Vermont, with a whopping 70% provided by Quebec, so our mental image certainly checks out.
However, despite being in the South, Virginia’s still able to produce enough to keep both individual producers in extra cash and at least a few farms in business. There are even two festivals. The largest is in Highland County, which butts up against West Virginia, and a much smaller one in Whitetop, a small Grayson County community far, far down in the southwest corner of the state.
It might be a bit of a project to get the public aware of and interested in maple syrup production, but the people who are trying to get it to take off in Virginia really want to see the potential syrup producers get excited.
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Building: the Virginia Tree Syrup Producers Association
“That knowledge isn’t totally lost in Virginia,” says Dr. Tom Hammett. “From Southwest Virginia on up into Northern Virginia, we have sugar maples. Many counties in the western part of the state have sugar maples and they have the ability to make maple syrup…years ago, back in the 1800s, Virginia exported a lot of maple syrup, and also a lot of sugar. They were sold to other parts of the country.”
Hammett is a Professor of Sustainable Biomaterials in the College of Natural Resources and Environment at Virginia Tech. A New England native, he’s excited about the idea of maple syrup becoming an industry in Virginia, and working to form an organization for producers to come together and use as a resource.
“I grew up making maple syrup and I come from a forestry background,” he says. “It is a multimillion dollar business, it’s underappreciated and unknown to people in Virginia, but, when I started this project I kept getting calls from people who wanted to try it.”
The idea is to build the project up by attracting participants until it’s robust enough to be a freestanding organization run by its members, and Virginia Tech will no longer be involved.
“We’re looking at expanding local markets,” Hammett says. “We have several programs. We’re finding new markets for syrup, looking at ways to use syrup, raising awareness by consumers that this product does exist and the many ways they can use it. Also we’re trying to inform people that you can use your land to produce more income.”
He continues, “What we want to do is raise awareness about this indigenous product that comes from Appalachia. It might offer people extra income,” along with being a useful foodstuff.
Guinevere Unterbrink, Hammett’s assistant and a Virginia Tech undergrad student in wildlife conservation with a minor in forestry, is a tireless worker on behalf of, and an enthusiastic ambassador for, the maple syrup project, aka the Virginia Tree Syrup Producers Association.
“When I applied (to work on the project), it ended up being something different than I expected but I felt it was important and I’m very passionate about it,” she says. “I think a reason this isn’t as big of an industry is that people just don’t know how big of an industry it could be.”
Unterbrink continues, “Non-timber forest products is an alternate way for farmers to make additional money, and it involves utilizing the forest to make money without involving lumber… there’s a conservation aspect to it.”
She’s a driving force in the gathering of information about producers. “I have this master spreadsheet of all the producers, all their contact info…a big part of it this past summer was just cold-calling, but since it’s beneficial to people, everyone’s interested. There’s people all over Virginia…and our data isn’t complete, because there’s people out there who aren’t in the association.” She’s hoping media coverage will help.
The project is geared to help anyone, from Sapsuckers-sized operations to single producers who are hobbyists or just getting started.
“We’re trying to cater to any size product, to provide assistance for anytone making it. We’re creating a community for people to share tips and advice, maybe have community boils, so if some people don’t have the equipment, they can come together to make syrup.”
Unterbrink adds, “There is money out there for this research and we’re creating a community where people will be able to access that and, I don’t know, protect themselves in a way?”
The program won’t always be run under the auspices of Virginia Tech; the other goal is to have the producers run it themselves, she says.
Her main concern, aside from spreading the word, is how greater, outside forces could jeopardize the whole thing.
“With climate change–the trees need a certain cold temperature in the winter to produce sap, and we’re in the bottom range (of where the trees grow),” she says. “Since it’s warming down south and it’s starting to spread, obviously the bottom of the range would be the first to go.”
While maples are alive in Virginia though, she and Hammett will be advocates for syrup production.
“My motivation is three things: this product comes from the forest, it can be sustainably produced, and it’s local,” he says. “I think it fits in nicely with landowners and producers who have other activities. They might be involved in agriculture and other land-based activities, and they don’t have much else going on this time of year, so they can do this.”
He adds, “The fourth thing that excites me is, we’re making syrup from other trees,” Hammett said, “Black walnut, we know we can make syrup from birch, there’s quotes both of interest in making syrup from sycamore, and some interest in making it from beech.”
People tend to prefer black walnut syrup once they’ve had it, he says; to him it’s “less sweet and more earthy and natural,” sycamore looks and tastes like caramel, birch syrup is lighter and sweeter than maple, and alder is being considered.
“There’s a birch that has a wintergreen flavored sap but I’m not sure how you’d make a syrup from it,” he says. But any of them are an improvement over the fake stuff. “You walk into some parts of the country, you’ll see ‘table syrup,’ but no real maple syrup. Corn syrup is what ‘table syrup’ is.”
The good news is that you can make syrup from any maple, not just sugar maples, but “there’s lots of sugar maples that people aren’t utilizing. They just don’t know they can use it to make something nutritious, to make a food product they can sell. That’s exciting! And they can make value-added products from it, like candy; they can use it for flavoring…”
He continues, “I’m thinking people don’t know this because we’re too pancake-centric, most people just think of those and waffles. It’s a great topping in any dessert, or on cereal. I had some on my oatmeal this morning. You can use it in anything you’d want to use a sweetener in, and it’s better for you than cane sugar. There’s no end to what you can use it for. You can make salad dressing with it, you can use it in pies and other baking products, you can use it as a sweetener in drinks.”
As long as we’re encouraging self-sufficiency, how about that other great natural, home-produced sweetener, honey?
Hammett continues, “Honey’s a whole different animal, if you’ll pardon the term; it’s a really different endeavor, making honey. Whereas maple is just tapping, pulling the sap and then processing it. It’s a lot simpler to collect and process maple syrup.”
Maple syrup, however, doesn’t involve animal husbandry, which, while a useful skill set, is also a lot of work.
“If you don’t tap the trees this year, no big deal, but if you don’t take care of the bees–there’s a lot to it, it’s much more complicated,” Hammett says. “I’m not sure it’s a true competitor. How to tap the trees, how to store and produce it – that’s not rocket science, but there is a craft you have to pick up on.”
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Laboring: Laurel Fork Sapsuckers Farm
For information on how to pick up on it, one of the large sugar camps at the Highland County Maple Festival (held the first two weekends in March) is the place to go.
Missy Moyers-Jarrells lives on Laurel Fork Sapsuckers Farm in Hightown, 10 miles west of Monterey, which is the seat of Highland County. With 2,232 people, Highland County is the least populous in the state. According to Moyers-Jarrells, the closest grocery store to her is an hour and 20 minutes away in Staunton.
The farm has been in her family for about 70 years, which is about how long the festival has been taking place.
Moyers-Jarrells agrees there’s no actual maple syrup industry as such in Virginia, though the means certainly exist; sap-producing maple trees extend across the state. “We do have producers in Virginia Beach that are making maple syrup, just two or three gallons for themselves, and that’s what we’re finding all through the state,” says Moyer-Jarrells. She says the festival has contacted 121 different producers in the state, but Highland County “ most certainly” has the bulk of them.
“All up and down along the Appalachian mountains, there are syrup producers,” she added. “Currently we are trying to work on a map; we just don’t know where all of them are. I’ve been working with Virginia Tech for a couple grants to find as many syrup producers in Virginia as we can, and then to help them form an association–for more leverage, for more grant funding, so we can do more research about the industry.”
Moyers-Jarrells said that there’s more than one specific maple type that can be tapped.
“East of Blue Ridge, they’re tapping red maples instead of sugar maples,” she said; the difference is simply due to what grows at what elevation, though “I know of at least one guy on Afton Mountain, east of Staunton, tapping a lot of red maples.”
The red maple season cycles a little earlier; that’s the only appreciable difference. Could a true connoisseur taste the difference between sugar maple syrup and red maple syrup?
“Nobody does that,” laughs Moyers-Jarrells. “ That would be pretty impressive, but I don’t think anyone’s going to be able to do that.”
Maple syrup season in Virginia is “typically 6-8 weeks in early spring,” she says. “Some people start in January, February, March. I know some will start tapping in late December in Southwest Virginia, around Christmas.”
There’s a lot of terminology and potentially different levels of technology you can bring to bear on maple syrup making, but the basics are the same: tap trees, reduce the sap until the most of the water is gone, and bottle the remaining fluid, which is now maple syrup.
How many workers does it take to run a successful operation? “It all depends on your equipment that you have,” she says. “Two or three people can make 500-600 gallons of syrup if they have the equipment for it.”
For scale, understand that per Moyer-Jarrells, it takes 52 gallons of sugar water from the maples to make one gallon of syrup. “It looks like a glass of water you poured from your own faucet at home,” she says.
Sapsuckers has four people working, with 1,200 taps in the trees to collect the sap from. “We’ll make about 250 gallons of syrup a year, but we don’t have a reverse osmosis machine,” she says. “It’s a big centrifuge.”
For the moment, we’ll leave out the centrifuge. The old-fashioned way of boiling to make syrup involves putting the sugar water in flat pans which are set over a fire pit. Sapsuckers keeps it at a continuous boil; Moyers-Jarrells says it goes from 6:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., firing the furnace every eight minutes with wood.
“It’s super simple, but there’s so many great technologies that make that process more complicated, but also make a quicker turnaround time,” she says.
The more modern way is to use a stainless steel evaporator, which does the same thing but is, she says, “a whole lot more efficient and effective and can make a whole lot more syrup.”
A reverse osmosis machine makes it even faster. You put your sugar water into it and it uses centrifugal force to separate out more water from the sugars, so that when you boil the resulting liquid to reduce the sap to syrup, it takes less time and energy.
“You can set the machine to however much water you want to take away,” Moyers-Jarrells says. “Whereas we can only make 25 gallons of syrup a day, places with a reverse osmosis machine can make 125 gallons a day.”
The boiling process is still necessary even with advanced equipment, because it removes impurities, and needs yet more filtering. “When it comes out of the evaporator, we put it into 10 gallon stainless steel pans, run it through the filter, and run it through another one after that.
The grades of maple syrup have more to do with when the syrup is produced and less to do with the concentration, it turns out.
“At the first part of the season you’re going to get the lightest syrup, towards the end you get darker syrup,” says Moyers-Jarrells. “We don’t do anything different, it’s just how the tree metabolizes sugar. Grade B syrup has no starch; it’s just made later in the season. It’s just as good, equally as healthy.”
She continues, “It’s kind of like roasting coffee beans. Light syrup is meant for pancakes and baked brie and figs, whereas darker syrup is better for bbq sauces and baking, because you get that flavor. In fact a lot of people prefer the darker syrup. My dad likes the darker syrup, I prefer the middle.”
There’s also something called “buddy syrup,” which isn’t about friendship. The term comes from the kind of syrup you get if you try to make it after the maple trees start budding. “It tastes like green grass clippings,” she says.
During the Depression, it wasn’t uncommon for people to use maple syrup as a trading item, and for years it was common practice to sweeten coffee with a chunk of maple sugar candy, she says, but production in Virginia predates its status as a colony by a long way.
“It was discovered by the Native Americnas, but they didn’t make maple syrup like we do now,” says Moyers-Jarrells. For starters, their spiles were made of wood or bark, sometimes from elderberry bush or sumac, which have soft piths that could be hollowed out to use as spiles.
They would put the sap in logs hollowed out in a similar manner to how they’d hollow them out for canoes. “Then they put hot rocks into the syrup to steam it off,” she says. “It was nowhere near what we call maple syrup now.”
The resulting sweet water was used to cook meats. To modern palates, it was nowhere near the syrup we’re used to; but to the Native Americans, it was very sweet.
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Gathering: the Festivals
Sweetness is a running theme, not just in the taste of syrup, but the fellowship that forms around it.
“This goes way back,” says Ralph Norris, the Mount Rogers Fire Chief, of maple syrup production, in a phone interview before the event. The festival, though much smaller than Highland’s, is “very, very, very busy. Before COVID it was really busy all the time. If I had to guess, and I’m just doing a number, I’d say over the weekend we’d have a thousand people on a Saturday and Sunday.” Unlike Highland’s, the Mount Rogers festival is only held over one weekend, not two. Mount Rogers is the mountain it’s held on; Whitetop is the community itself.
The Mount Rogers Maple Festival, far-flung as it also is, shows its draw and influence by the license plates in the various parking lots: most are from Virginia, a few from North Carolina, but Tennessee and, surprisingly, Colorado show up as well.
Despite the potential for industry, “Nobody up here in Whitetop that I know of is commercial,” he says. “And I know of, besides us, there’s only one other person that makes the syrup up here.”
In the early stages of production, “When we go to do tapping, not everybody goes out because everybody’s got jobs, and then some people from around the community go out to help us,” Norris says. “When we go out, usually you’re looking at about 10 people.”
And the money from it, like in Highland, is used to improve the community; specifically for the fire and rescue department. “We use it to help keep the fire department up, maintain vehicles–if we have a good festival, we’ll get new gear.,” says Norris. (There are about 25 people on the roster, volunteers.)
At the Mount Rogers Maple Festival, he says, “We do everything. The highlight is everyone coming to get their pancake dinner,” which is really an all-day affair, both days. “They make pancakes and sausage. We bottle syrup from the festival so everyone can taste what it’s like. The bulk of our money comes from the meal. The vendors that are there, we don’t hardly get any money in from them at all. We charge them a little to set up and that’s it. I want to say it’s about $25 for the event.” (The festival will go on to net about $7,000 for the fire and rescue.)
The syrup sold is only what the fire department bottles; vendors are forbidden from bringing in competing products.
Norris estimates the norm for fire department syrup production is “Oh, probably 120, 160 gallons, somewhere in there. A quart is $20, a pint is $16, a half pint is $8, a 3.4 ounce bottle is roughly $5. But we’re talking about raising prices because the cost of everything has gone through the roof.” The pancake dinner is $10 per person, with seconds of some items sold for about $2 a serving.
It is, unfortunately, the only syrup-based thing you’ll get to enjoy at this year’s festival. Because Whitetop is a higher elevation, it’s almost always 10 degrees cooler than the rest of the area, which means the Friday-night snow that dusted everywhere else was a good 2”-3” thick according to locals. This caused the tapping tour, at a fourth outdoor location, to be canceled, though a fair amount of it melted. And, unfortunately, a leak in the sugar house means there’s no maple syrup processing demonstration, either.
There is, however, live bluegrass and old-time music all day that makes the trip worthwhile anyway, and when you take a break and hit the dining hall, and cut a fluffy, triple-layered wedge from the stack in your styrofoam box of pancakes and sausage, that first bite will make you keenly aware that in some very deep corner of your soul, you always want pancakes, the same way you always want true love or divine grace or cheap gas prices.
The Highland County Maple Festival is “a county-wide event, something that can be found in every nook and cranny,” said Moyers-Jarrells. “I think one of the biggest things is that people have been coming for 30 years. Their parents brought them and they want to bring their children and grandchildren.”
Sapsuckers, admittedly one of the larger sites of the Highland County festival, still delights in the small, particular moments, says Moyers-Jarrells.
“We have a gentleman who’s been coming for 26 years consecutively. When you go into the arts and crafts area (at the farm), you pay $3 and get a keychain. At the end of it, he brings us his keychain. He saw that we were kind of collecting some of the older keychains, and gives us his–’Here’s my keychain from here!’”
The Highland festival isn’t just useful for celebrating community, it’s useful for building it as well. “Because we give tours and engage and talk to as many people as we can,” Moyers-Jarrells says. “We’ve met lots of incredible people and we get together, celebrate children’s birthdays. It’s a great way to connect.”
Because of the far-flung nature of the event–it’s a fundraiser for some organizations and a private endeavor for individual producers as well–specific data about how much money it raises is unavailable, but after 62 years Highland citizens and government obviously feel it’s worth keeping.
These are the only two for now, but if the word is spread, there could be many, many more, arising from a growth of maple syrup producers, which Hammet, Unterbrink and Moyers-Jarrells would very much like to see.
“All up and down along the Appalachian mountains, there are syrup producers,” says Moyers-Jarrells. It’s just a matter of getting everyone tapped into the same network.
For more information about the Highland County Maple Festival and Maple Syrup Trail, Syrup Trail, visit virginiamaplesyrup.com. For more information about the Mount Rogers Maple Festival and the Ramp Festival and Molasses Festival, visit the Mount Rogers Fire and Rescue Facebook page at facebook.com/mount.rogers.9/.
For more information about the Virginia Tree Syrup Producers Association, the project helmed by Dr. Tom Hammett, Professor of Sustainable Biomaterials in the College of Natural Resources and Environment at Virginia Tech, visit their Facebook page at facebook.com/virginia.maple.923/. You may also sent any questions or offer data to Hammett and Unterbrink at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To join the private Virginia Tree Syrup Hobbyist/Producer Group, find them on Facebook at facebook.com/groups/1352252831869371.