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Southwest Virginia farmers sweet on maple syrup production
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Southwest Virginia farmers sweet on maple syrup production

Maple syrup production is becoming a sweet business for some enterprising farmers in Southwest Virginia.

Although Highland County is known as the state’s hotbed of maple syrup production—its 60-year-old Highland Maple Festival was designated the state’s official maple festival by then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe in 2014—people have been making it in other areas.

“We have an abundance of red and sugar maple trees on our ridges, along with more than adequate slope to run sap lines,” noted Virginia Cooperative Extension agent Phil Meeks in Wise County. “A total of 14 Wise County families produced maple syrup last winter, and a handful of those families are taking it to a commercial level this year.”

David Lawson, the owner of MountainRose Vineyards, is one of them.

When his children were young, Lawson decided to tap the large silver maple tree that was growing in his yard. “Birds would peck on that tree, and sap was just running out. That’s when I got the idea to tap it ourselves. I wanted my kids to see the process of how maple syrup is made,” he explained.

Kitchen disaster, business epiphany

The next year he tapped all five maple trees in the yard, and eventually he bought 100 taps and started looking for more maples on his property. That third January he tapped about 30 trees and boiled the sap in his parents’ kitchen while they were on vacation.

“I cooked so much that the condensation peeled the wallpaper off the wall,” Lawson recalled with a laugh. “That was when I got banned from cooking syrup inside.”

The family decided to increase the amount of maple syrup they were making, bottle it and sell it commercially at the winery. That was in the winter of 2018, and they sold all 18 gallons that had been made from the sap of about 150 trees.

Lawson said he would like to increase the amount of maple syrup he’s producing, but he is limited by the number of trees on his family’s land.

Alaskan experience, applied

Michael and Lisa Martucci are another Wise County couple who want to increase maple syrup production on their Doghouse Farm. They previously lived in Alaska, where they had a small farm and made birch syrup. After Michael retired from the Army they bought land in Wise, close to his family’s home in Pound.

They reached out to Meeks, who visited their property and helped them mark trees with the potential for tapping. “We identified 400 to 500 trees we could potentially tap,” Michael said. 

Last year the Martuccis tapped 25 trees and either gave away or sold all the syrup they made from the sap. “We really want to expand this year,” Michael said. But they need a building in which to cook, an evaporator to help with the boiling process, and hoses and taps, all of which are expensive.

But they will continue making maple syrup whether they expand or not. “It’s been proven that maple syrup is a healthy sweetener,” Michael said.

“Ours is delicious,” Lisa noted.

Va. maple production ‘underappreciated’

Maple syrup production is an underappreciated and under-documented segment of Virginia’s agriculture industry, according to Dr. Tom Hammett, a professor in the Department of Sustainable Biomaterials at Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment.

“There are lots of people flying under the radar producing syrup for friends and family, but there is a groundswell of opportunity for commercial production,” he noted.

In 2018 Hammett received a Virginia Department of Agriculture grant for expanding livelihood options for Virginia landowners through tree syrup production. He and other Virginia Tech researchers will seek to increase the competitiveness of the state’s maple syrup sector by helping landowners and farmers begin production, create value-added products and improve markets and related practices that increase awareness of syrup’s nutritional value.

Data about Virginia syrup production is not officially captured, but Hammett estimated that in any one year there are up to 200 people producing syrup from tree sap; most are not commercial producers.
The larger commercial producers are in Highland County, which he called the “nexus of maple syrup production.” Others are in Wise County and the Mount Rogers area, and he said there are smaller “but vibrant” operations in other areas such as Giles County.

For information about maple syrup production and future syrup production workshops, call Hammett at 540-231-2716.

U.S. maple syrup production

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the nation’s maple syrup production in 2017 totaled 4.27 million gallons, up 2 percent from the previous year. On average, the sap flow season lasted 37 days, compared to 33 days in 2016.

On Real Virginia

Real Virginia, Virginia Farm Bureau’s weekly television program, shares a look at maple syrup production in Highland County at bit.ly/rv17maple. 

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