Highland County, Virginia, maple, syrup, Maple Festival, sugar, doughnuts, candy, tree, trees

Several years ago, a Highland County syrup producer received a question from a Maple Festival visitor, who mistakenly (but innocently) asked “Why do you charge so much for Maple Syrup when all you have to do is tap a tree and collect it in a bottle?” Believe me, some days our syrup producers wish the process was that easy.

For many Highland County visitors, “Maple” means March, but for our syrup producers, preparation for the maple season starts the previous summer.

We reached out to Bruce Folks of Bruce’s Syrup & Candies for a more in-depth perspective of his maple-syrup-producing timeline:

  • Summer:
    • Keep watch on all lines (woven throughout 90 acres) to ensure no trees, shrubs, or brush are growing towards or interfering with the lines. Trim back any that are.
  • October:
    • Remove any large limbs or trees that have fallen on the lines
    • Repair any fallen lines or major damage
  • December:
    • Ready equipment
    • Clean Reverse Osmosis machine
    • Clean sugar water storage tanks
    • Clean evaporators
  • January:
    • Prep tools for tapping the trees
    • Monitor the weather for optimal tree tapping opportunities
    • Tap 1,600 trees (usually around the third week of January)
    • After tapping, fix any holes in lines
    • On boiling days: (3-4 days per week during the season)
      • 4 pm: Start the Reverse Osmosis machine
      • 7-10 pm: Boil concentrated sap
      • 10 pm: Wash and rinse the Reverse Osmosis machine
    • Check vacuum pressure daily
    • If there is any loss of vacuum, check tubing, locate issue(s), and fix. (This can take several hours especially if there are multiple issues.)
    • Potential issues: fallen limbs causing lines to pop off, squirrel chews, or a tap coming loose
    • Begin production of maple candy and value-added products, such as sugar, fudges, lollipops, etc.
  • February:
    • Keep a close eye on all operations started in January
    • Boil water, on average, every other night starting the process at 4 pm and ending at 10 pm
      • Everyday, rotate out syrup pan and clean previous used pan (1-3 hours everyday is spent washing and cleaning something!)
    • When the sap isn’t flowing, nights and weekends are spent filtering, bottling, and labeling syrup (No social time here! Rest and relaxation? Forget about it!)
    • Continue making maple candy
    • Start other smaller preparations for Maple Festival (Taking inventory of packaging, organizing festival supplies, etc.)
  • March
    • Continue boiling regularly
    • Continue making candy and value-added products
    • Continue prep for Maple Festival
    • Set-up/Run/Tear Down booth for two Maple Festival weekends (Average 10-12 hours per day.)
    • Close out Maple Festival – figure financials, unpack and put away supplies, take inventory of remaining product, etc.
    • Pull all taps from trees
    • Flush tubing with water
    • Clean all equipment
Bruce’s Syrup & Candies ready for business during an atypical, non-snowy Maple Festival weekend.

That sounds like a quick and tidy list of “to do’s,” but let me tell ya – it’s not. It is hard work. Producers are on their feet most every second they’re awake maintaining lines, cleaning equipment, and continuously watching every facet of the operation to make sure things run smoothly because one little mishap could cost LOTS of dollars.

Plus, our producers are also at the mercy of Mother Nature. If those temps don’t drop and rise when and how they need to, the work-to-profit ratio can get pretty slim.

Oh! And, did I mention making maple syrup isn’t the only thing on the minds of our producers, who have other jobs, such as bus drivers, store owners, farmers, or loggers. (Or being a parent!)

In the throes of maple season, Bruce’s day begins around 6 am when he wakes and almost immediately changes out the sap filters and washes the used ones. The remainder of his day is spent doing whatever tasks the season and operation require of him in that particular 24-hours.

Bruce’s Reverse Osmosis Machine

At about 4 pm on boiling evenings, which can be an average of every other day for 4-6 weeks after the trees start running, Bruce fires up the Reverse Osmosis machine and begins the boiling process that will last for the next six hours. (That’s basically a work day in itself, right there!)

At 10 pm, he shuts down the operation for the day, rinses out the Reverse Osmosis machine, and climbs in his truck for the approximate mile-and-a-half drive off the mountain to his home. (Which means, he probably actually gets to sleep around midnight just to wake up at 6 am and do it all over again.)

AND, this process is EASIER than it was about 25 years ago before more modern technology came into play!

Also, keep in mind, it takes about 40-45 gallons of sap to yield ONE gallon of syrup. Wow…

Furthermore, any business owner knows, things come up and/or don’t always go according to plan. And, this list doesn’t even include those hiccups!

So, how about that? Truly, aforementioned-Maple-Festival-visitor, Highland County’s liquid gold is worth the price on those bottles and jugs. In fact, it’s likely worth more. It’s a livelihood for those who create the sweet, syrupy goodness, and now we all know just how precious those dollars are that we pay for this wonderful product.

Cheers to our producers, and best wishes for a successful season!!

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