West Virginia may be thawing to its maple syrup potential.
Sugaring, in the minds of many, is a quaint and rustic pursuit. Galvanized buckets hang on trees, catching the dripping sap. Friends and neighbors gather to boil the sap down in a cauldron over a roaring wood fire, taking turns with long-handled spoons, ladling ribbons of the thickening confection onto the snow as a treat for the kids.
That’s a romantic notion. But commercial production of maple syrup—a potential West Virginia has barely tapped—is another kind of quaint and rustic altogether. John Dalen at Dry Fork Maple Works in Randolph County is showing how it’s done.
One might be forgiven for seeing John, with his white head and sturdy Scandinavian frame, as a bit of a wizard. It’s a fitting image for a man who turns sap to syrup at an industrial scale four miles from any paved road—a location determined by family history. After the Civil War John’s great-great-uncle John McClure of Franklin, still known as the Cattle King of West Virginia, amassed some 15,000 acres. John’s daughters inherited 1,200 of those on Dry Fork of the Cheat River, a blank spot on the map southwest of Whitmer.
Amish friends persuaded John that sugaring there could make a good income, but he’d only ever cooked a little sap down in a soup pot on a wood stove. He picked the brains of Mike Rechlin at the Future Generations graduate school in Franklin, a longtime teacher of sustainable forestry. He befriended a Cornell University maple specialist. He toured operations in top-producing Vermont. And then he designed a modern, $500,000 operation.
A now-and-again carpenter and boilermaker, John built his sugar shack from timber he felled and milled on the property. It’s far off the grid so he set it up with propane for cooking and with diesel generators for electricity. Workers hung the intricate sap collection system on the slopes above the creek, 54 miles of luminous blue polyethylene tubing suspended at chest height: narrow droplines at the trees and bigger branchlines along the slopes, all gathering into 10 sturdy mainlines.
Pulling Sap Downhill
The 2015 sap run was Dry Fork’s second season. In January and February 2015 the woods crew tapped spiles—those are the spouts—into 19,000 trees. The steep hillsides were still deep in snow. “It gets pretty treacherous. We’ve all taken some rolls downhill,” says woods crew member Jason Brooks with a game grin. The crew can tap 600 trees to a man on a good day, 200 on a rough one. They finished just before a frigid snap in late February.
In March the sap began to flow. A vacuum pump gently pulled the sap from two networks on the north and south hillsides above the creek through the droplines, branchlines, and mainlines into the sugar shack in the valley. Sap gushed into two truck-sized vats with a faintly metallic-resinous aroma—nothing like maple syrup. John worked long hours at the height of the sap run to get it from tree to barrel in under 24 hours. “The warmer the sap gets, the more bacteria and yeast start to affect it,” he says.
First, he processes the raw sap. “We’re essentially squeezing the water out—going from a percent and a half or 2 percent up to 12 or 13 percent,” he says of the sugar content. That step saves a lot of propane. Still, the evaporator is where the alchemy happens. The room fills with a rich maple savor as sugar concentrations step up in a roiling, 200-plus-degree churn, to about 60 percent. He filters the finished syrup and pumps it into barrels he seals so hot, it’s days before they cool off completely.
A former high school science teacher, this sugarmaker is a chemist by nature. But he’s equal part woodsman. He tells a story about life in these woods. “The other day we caught a cub bear,” he begins. The dogs started barking, and a worker spotted the cub hobbling up from the creek, slow and sickly. “I picked him up by the scruff and put him in a toolbox,” John says. A game warden he called told him he couldn’t keep a bear so he put it in the outhouse with dog food and water and left the door ajar. The next day officials took the cub to the State Wildlife Center at French Creek. “Cute little rascal,” he chuckles. “You gotta be ready for anything out here.”
Tapping West Virginia
West Virginians, like Vermonters, may one day enjoy real maple syrup on their diner pancakes. There’s a lag in the numbers, but Dry Fork’s operation may have taken the state’s production from around 1,200 gallons a year to more like 6,000. In 2016 Dry Fork plans to tap about 21,000 trees. And it’s not the only producer that’s ramping up. “Others, like Frostmore Farm and Family Roots Farm, have invested in infrastructure in the past five years,” said the West Virginia Department of Agriculture’s Cindy Martel in mid-2015. “And operations like Cedar Run Farm are actively adding taps and increasing efficiencies.” While Connecticut held the bottom spot in the USDA’s top 10 producing states by volume in 2014, at 16,000 gallons, West Virginia has far more maples and could top that.
Many more producers could earn a good living in the highlands in John’s opinion. Plus, there’s the lifestyle. “It’s kind of like a fantasy—living in the woods, wool pants, tough-soled boots, hatchets and axes, being outside when it’s 15 below,” he says. “It’s pretty neat. It’s really neat.”
Photographed by Carla Witt Ford