Valerie @ Cowan Creek
Last year my family joined Grow Appalachia. This past year we gleaned much from participating in the workshops we attended, from other producers we met and were very excited about the marketing opportunities at the City of Whitesburg Letcher County’ Farmer’s Market. Our experience with Grow Appalachia has influenced us to take our hobby of making maple syrup for ourselves to another level…producing syrup to sell to others.
My wife and I purchased our property 20 years ago in Letcher County. Both of us were raised on and around family farms in Pennsylvania, so it was only natural for us to implement our knowledge and love for agriculture on our fifty acres we affectionately call SouthDown Farm. Over the years, we have grown a decent garden, planted fruit trees, blueberries, mushrooms, kept bees, and raised meat goats, meat rabbits, chickens and Bourbon Red turkeys. We have made use of every square foot of tillable property, which leaves about 48.5 acres of steep, so called useless, hillside property. Some of the hillside acreage has been strip mined.
About six years ago an inquisitive friend of mine started experimenting to see if their maple trees might produce sap for their own maple syrup. Their results were good enough to make me think about trying to tap a few trees on our property. With a half dozen recycled milk jugs and a few spiles made from plumbing supplies purchased at the local hardware store my family and I headed up the back forty to see what we could do. The trees produced well, we evaporated the liquid over a gas camper stove. The end product was amazing! We were hooked! Since that first year we have had success making a gallon or two of maple syrup, however, we were limited to how much we could make with our very steep hillside property and the fact that maple sap is heavy and difficult to pack out of the woods.
Late this Fall, the Letcher County Extension office, the Harlan County Extension office and the Virginia Cooperative Extension office in Wise County worked together to host a wonderful event they called the KY-VA Maple School. This event brought together people from all over the region (and beyond) who were interested in the possibilities of making maple syrup. The event showcased knowledgeable presenters, a maple syrup equipment manufacturer and in my opinion, most importantly, folks who were producing maple syrup to sell. We learned about a new relatively inexpensive sap collection system that utilized very small 3/16” tubing and could connect 30 trees piping the sap to a collection tank. The fascinating thing about this system is that it produces natural vacuum when the sap is flowing, significantly increasing sap yields (with no ill effect to the trees) if there is more than 40 feet of elevation from the start of the line to the last tree. I was excited to think of my property where elevation differences can be more than 400 feet! The Maple School gave us the tools to help think and plan how we could take our efforts to the next level…making maple syrup and other value added products from our syrup to sell at the Farmers Market and possibly other places!
Armed with the new knowledge, we headed to the back forty again; identifying and marking maple trees to see where it might make the most sense to start. The next step was to think about evaporation. A properly sized evaporator is key to the plan. On the average, one boils down 43 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of maple syrup (43:1)! Boiling off 42 gallons of water for every gallon of end product is a lot of cooking! We purchased a wood fired evaporator capable of evaporating up to 20 gallons an hour. We made four separate runs, on five acres of property; consisting of 102 taps which all run into a 300 gallon tank at the bottom of a un-reclaimed strip mine high wall. From this tank we connected a ¾” sap line that goes 900 feet down the mountain and is plumbed directly into the evaporator.
Our first sap flow of 2017 came last week. We were happy to collect 300 gallons of sap, which evaporate down to 9 gallons of product, ready to finish off to 66.5 bricks then be bottled as pure Kentucky Maple Syrup. If the weather cooperates we anticipate collecting 1000 gallons of sap which has the potential to make 20-25 gallons of Maple Syrup. Maple Syrup is a wonderful product, the perfect platform to make delightful value added products. We are hopeful for a community kitchen to better explore the possibilities of making value added products from the Maple Syrup we are producing.
Could Maple Syrup production be an untapped resource for Appalachia (pun intended)? I think there are great possibilities for sugaring in our region, time will tell. I will leave you with just a few thoughts about what I think we in Eastern Kentucky have going in our favor when it comes to Maple Syrup production:
- Much of the forest land in Eastern Kentucky has been impacted by over harvesting trees and strip mining. Maple trees have been called the weeds of the forest. When too many trees are harvested for whatever reason or an old farm is taken over by the forest, one of the first trees to reach for the skies are maple trees. Our forests are filled with maple trees waiting to be tapped.
- There is a rich tradition of Agriculture in Appalachia. Tillable acreage or pasture land is in short supply because of the terrain. We have an abundance of inexpensive hillside property many think is useless.. The trees on our properties are not eating costly feed, they are not costing us money to grow and can sustainably produce a valuable product.
- In order for the sap to begin to flow, night time temperatures need to dip below freezing at night and above freezing in the daytime. In a normal weather year we have many of these temperature cycles from January into March, giving us a pro-longed sap flowing season.
- January through February is an ideal time of year for a farmer to harvest a crop.
- Citing an increased interest in local foods and healthier eating there has been a 200% increase in demand for Maple Syrup in the US since 2012.
- There is an abundance of value added products that can be made from maple syrup.
Seth and Sheryl Long
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