Maple syrup time!

Gordon McDonald checks a sap bucket on his brother Gary’s farm near Chardon.

When billowing clouds of steam begin rising from family sugar bush operations that dot the landscape this time of year, you know two things: Winter’s grip is finally beginning to ease a bit, and underneath all that steam is one of the tastiest treats there is.

Poured over pancakes or drizzled over ice cream, there is no better seasonal treat than pure Ohio maple syrup, and Geauga County produces more of the stuff than any other county in the state. The two main reasons: many mature sugar maple trees and many Amish farms — most of which operate a sugar bush.

Gary McDonald is not Amish, but his family’s farm near Chardon has produced maple syrup for five generations. “We gave up gathering sap in buckets years ago and now tap our trees with plastic tubing,” McDonald says. “Other than that, we’re pretty much a low-tech operation. We light our sugar house at night with lanterns and still fire our evaporator with wood.” In fact, it takes cords and cords of wood. Maple sap usually contains only about 2 percent sugar, so 40 to 50 gallons of sap must be boiled to produce just a gallon of syrup.

The McDonald family makes several hundred gallons of maple syrup each year, the sale of which supplements their farm income during the slower months. “We also do it for fun,” McDonald says. “It’s a family tradition we hope to continue long into the future.” A second sugar house is operated next door by McDonald’s nephew, Adam McKinney.

McDonald recently took steps to make sure their family tradition will continue, by placing his 200 acres into long-term conservation easements with the Western Reserve Land Conservancy. The agreement ensures that the land will remain as fields and forests permanently.

A few counties to the southwest, the McFerren family has also been making maple syrup for generations, but their operation is decidedly more high-tech. Recently relocating their facility from Morrow County to Richland County, they not only tap trees using plastic tubing but also extract sap from their maple trees via a vacuum system. “It doesn’t harm the trees, and we get more sap that way,” says Jim McFerren.

“Once the sap arrives at our sugar house, we run it through a reverse-osmosis machine to remove much of the water before we boil,” says McFerren. “We no longer use wood to fire our evaporator as we did at our old sugar house; instead, we now use fuel oil.”

The McFerrens’ large, new evaporator is state of the art, saving them both time and labor. “Three of us — my two sons and I — can run the entire operation,” McFerren says. “Before, it took half a dozen people, and no more boiling into the wee hours of the morning. We can now get the same amount of syrup made in a relatively few hours.”

The McFerrens, Consolidated Cooperative members, produce anywhere from 1,500 to 2,000 gallons or more of maple syrup each year.

One of life’s true pleasures is tasting fresh maple syrup — nature’s natural nectar — still warm from the evaporator. If you’ve never experienced such a delight, many state and local parks offer maple syrup-making demonstrations and festivals this time of year. Don’t put off your visit, as the season usually lasts only a month or less. “When the spring peepers begin singing,” McFerren says, “sugar season is about over.”

W.H. “Chip” Gross is Ohio Cooperative Living’s outdoors editor; 
he may be reached at whchipgross@gmail.com.