- Associated Press - Saturday, March 29, 2014

FRIENDLY, W.Va. (AP) - Fresh maple syrup doesn’t have to come from a faraway state or country.

Just ask the folks at Cedar Run Farms in Pleasants County. They get it fresh from their own trees and sell it at local supermarkets.

Cedar Run is a 157-acre family farm, said Chris Metz, 41, one of the founders. With his wife, Betsy Metz, 38, his mother Debbie Metz, 60, and his father, Bill Metz, 61, Chris Metz and his family operate the farm.

They opened their doors in 2009 as a Christmas tree farm and expanded into maple syrup the following year, Chris Metz said. Cedar is in the name, but ironically there are only five cedar trees on the entire farm, Metz said.

Cedar Run Farms adds nothing to its syrup, Metz said.

Metz and his family had tapped into 625 maple trees on their property in early March and the maple syrup was flowing almost faster than the team of four could keep up with it, Metz said.

Cedar Run Farms discarded traditional sap collection methods after one year. Many hear of maple syrup and think of buckets hanging on spouts from the sides of trees and farmers stomping through the mud to empty and replace the buckets throughout the day.

“For more than 600 trees? The traditional approach is too labor intensive for one family,” Metz said.

Plastic tubing, 5/16 inch thick, is suspended from tree to tree, criss-crossing the valley at the farm. Tubes connected to each other forming a 1,200-foot-long, sap-gathering spider’s web that is the heart of the family operation.

The web clung to each maple tree the family had tapped with small round devices called check valves. These valves are inserted directly into the tree’s bark and pose no injury to the tree, Metz said.

“Our maple trees just happened to be here,” Metz said, “We have about 1,200 sugar maple and a dozen red maple trees on the property, with about 625 tapped at the moment,” he said.

Future plans include 1,200 maple trees on the property tapped with another 600 trees from their Tyler County farm, Metz said.

Every spring, the maples undergo a natural process, releasing a sugary sap that can be drawn from the tree. Normally, any injury to the tree’s bark would allow the sap to flow onto the ground, or in this case, through the tree’s check valve, until nightfall, Metz said.

When the check valves are removed at the end of the season, the tree will naturally heal over the spot, Metz said.

A single sugar maple tree can produce more than a gallon of sap every day during good weather, Metz said.

“Today, it’s 55 degrees and the sap is really running,” Metz said. “We expect that we will bring in more than 1,500 gallons of sap,” he said.

The sap ran through the transparent tubing down to an 1,100-gallon storage tank at the bottom of the hollow. There, a dedicated water line pumped the sap from that storage tank up to one of two 600-gallon holding tanks at the family’s Sugar Shack, Metz said.

“It seems strange to think that you can take a drink straight from a tree, but you can from a sugar maple,” Metz said. “The sap in these lines is perfectly safe to drink, and even a little sweet at this point,” he said.

The Sugar Shack is the name the family gave to the building where the sap is transformed into sugar, Metz said.

Through the process of evaporation, the family turns 56 gallons of sap into a single gallon of maple syrup, Metz said.

The machine that does all the work is a Leader brand maple syrup evaporator, Metz said. Leader is a Vermont-based company that has been in business since 1888, Metz said.

It offers three styles of evaporators: wood-burning, oil-burning, and natural gas-burning.

The style of stainless steel evaporator that Cedar Run Farms uses is powered by a wood-burning fire, Metz said.

“It is the most difficult to control of the three types,” Metz said, “But we don’t have a natural gas source at the Sugar Shack and oil is far more expensive than wood,” he said.

The family prefers to use wood with a high BTU content, Metz said. Their favorite woods are oak and hickory, although they will use ash, cherry and sugar maple as well, he said.

“We try to use the wood that falls on the ground throughout the year, whatever that wood happens to be,” Metz said.

Wood is added to the fire every 12 minutes while the family is making maple syrup, Metz said. As long as there is sap in the holding tanks, the machine must be constantly operated, he said.

With maple season lasting four or five weeks in West Virginia, that is a lot of overnight shifts and a lot of firewood to keep the evaporator going, Metz said.

From the holding tanks, the system pumps sap into the 225-gallon feed tank, which gravity-feeds the sap, little by little, into the first stage of the evaporation process, Metz said.

The raw sap enters the first pan in the evaporator, and is heated to 750 degrees, Metz said. The water in the sap evaporates, creating steam, he said.

As the sap becomes thicker, the machine eventually deposits it in the syrup pan, Metz said. The syrup is heated and thickened even more, until its temperature reaches 7 degrees above that day’s boiling point, Metz said.

When the machine reaches the target temperature, it automatically opens a valve and draws the maple syrup into a bucket beneath the spout, Metz said.

Then, the family tests to see if it is maple syrup or not, Metz said. Using a hydrometer, the family tests a cup filled with syrup for the proper consistency. It is then transferred to the filter tank, Metz said.

In a nearby, much-cooler building, the family hooks the filter tank up to a filter press to filter the syrup, Metz said.

“All pure maple syrup has natural sediment, called sugar sand, when it is made,” Metz said. “It is perfectly safe, but people want to see a clear product. That’s why we filter it,” he said.

The filter press sends 20 gallons of maple syrup at a time through a pressure-operated diatomaceous earth filter, Metz said.

Once all of the sediment has been removed, the syrup is placed into a canning unit, Metz said.

The operation has two of these, a large one and a small one, he said. Both are surrounded by a water jacket, which is heated with a propane source to make the syrup smooth enough to easily pour into its container, Metz said.

Cedar Run Farms offers several types of syrup containers, both decorative and practical, he said. Plastic containers with the farm logo come in quart and pint sizes, he said.

Decorative glass bottles with festive scenes, wildlife, and humorous shapes such as gingerbread men, are more popular as gifts, he said.

Cedar Run Farms maple syrup is available in St. Marys at Galaxy Market and Smith Candies; in Middlebourne at Dids Designs; in Parkersburg at Mother Earth Foods, Mulberry Lane and the Blennerhassett State Park Gift Shop; and online at cedarrunfarm.com and on Facebook at Cedar Run Farms, Metz said.

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Information from: News and Sentinel (Parkersburg, W.Va.), http://www.newsandsentinel.com

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