Institute infuses W.Va. syrup-making with innovation

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Institute infuses W.Va. syrup-making with innovation
Tim Mathis and son make syrup in West Virginia. (Photo courtesy Robert C. Byrd Institute)

Making maple syrup used to be fairly common in West Virginia, though as more people began buying sugar and other syrups at the store, the practice faded.

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Technology, however, is putting put a new twist on this old tradition. The Robert C. Byrd Institute at Marshall University is playing a key role in introducing new technology, enabling state maple syrup production to begin a resurgence.

According to a state Department of Agriculture survey, more than 60,000 maple trees are tapped annually in the Mountain State.

In 2018, the institute was awarded a $50,000 Rural Business Development grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to expand maple syrup production in Wayne, Mingo, and Lincoln counties by helping new businesses in the region tap into the market.

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Partnering with Toms Creek Family Farm of Wayne and the Williamson Health and Wellness Center in Mingo County, the institute provided each new business with the training and equipment necessary to launch and sustain its new venture.

“First, we developed a new stove that dramatically increases the rate at which the sap is boiled down,” explained Evan Nelson, the institute's manager of Agricultural Innovations.

“Then we manufactured 15 of the stoves and awarded them to maple syrup producers across southern West Virginia to help improve their production process. You can use a commercial evaporator to boil down the syrup, but our stove is significantly cheaper and much more efficient.”

“Secondly,” Nelson said, “we worked with others in the industry to develop tree taps and tubing that help harvest more of the sap.”

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The maple season in West Virginia generally lasts two months, from January to March. Back in the day, maple syrup producers would hang buckets underneath the spouts they would drive into trees. They would wait for the buckets to fill then carry them to a central collection point, long known as a “sugar shack,” where it would be boiled into maple syrup. Today, tubing can connect all the trees in a given area and deliver the sap to one big tank.

Each syrup producer served by the Southern West Virginia Maple Technical Assistance Program received tubing and taps for 20 to 30 maple trees.

In addition, the institute's entrepreneur services team has helped syrup producers develop a comprehensive lean business plan focused on identifying customers, developing distribution channels, and setting pricing.

Nelson grew up on a working cattle farm in Wayne County and uses that experience at the institute where he works with a variety of farmers, beverage, and food vendors to innovate and improve their business practices. He takes particular pride in helping grow the number of maple syrup producers in the Mountain State.

Despite the coronavirus pandemic, the state’s maple syrup production has been growing. According to the state Department of Agriculture, West Virginia produced 16,000 gallons of maple syrup in 2020, which was an increase of 2,000 gallons from 2019. Inclement weather curtailed maple syrup production in 2021 when it totaled 13,000 gallons, down 3,000 gallons from 2020.

“Weather’s not always your best friend,” Nelson said. “That February ice storm we had hurt a lot of folks’ syrup operations.”

“Weather remains a key factor for how successful our maple seasons end up,” said State Commissioner of Agriculture Kent Leonhardt

“An optimistic note is we continue to see more taps placed in trees, which will only lead to positive results for the industry.”

Looking ahead, Nelson sees not only growth in the state’s maple syrup production, but he’s also excited about the potential of tapping the state’s walnut trees.

“Canada and Vermont pretty much own the game when it comes to maple syrup,” he said.

“But in Vermont, they have only three—count ‘em, three!—walnut trees in the whole state. Heck, I have three walnut trees in my backyard. At wholesale, maple syrup sells for about $40 a gallon, while walnut syrup, which is darker and richer, sells for $400 a gallon. That’s a huge opportunity for us if we can take advantage of it.”


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