- Associated Press - Saturday, March 19, 2016

DUNMORE, W.Va. (AP) - Rachel Taylor is almost giddy when she talks about their maple syrup production at Frostmore Farm in Pocahontas County. She’s all smiles and bubbly enthusiasm, like she’s under the influence of a very nice sugar buzz.

“West Virginia has as many trees as Vermont,” she exclaimed. “We’re just not tapping them.”

Rachel and her husband, Adam, are doing their part to change that.

“From 1,200 taps, we produced 305 gallons of syrup last year,” she said. “This year, we think we could be seeing 400 to 450 gallons.”

It’s all a drop in the bucket compared to the vast Canadian maple syrup empire or even the better-established Vermont maple producers, but the Taylors look at it as a kind of hobby, an elaborate one, for sure, but a hobby - and an expensive one to start.

The land and the trees the couple got from Adam’s family, which has owned the farm for generations. The land had been sitting, neglected and overgrown, for decades.

“Adam said he vaguely remembers coming here when they made maple syrup,” Rachel said. “They used to make syrup here, but just for their own use.

On the property is an old sugar shack, where Adam’s grandparents boiled down their syrup. Decaying barrels and pans rest inside under layers of old dust. A support post is charred from a fire.

To get the farm up and running, the couple had to clear debris, clean up and invest upwards of $50,000 in equipment, including eight miles of plastic tubing and a vacuum pump.

The blue tubes snake from tree to tree in an elaborate web that gently brings the sap down the hill to be processed.

John Wayne, Rachel’s father, said, “The vacuum pumps don’t suck the trees dry. They just sort of encourage the flow through the tubes. It’s more efficient, but it doesn’t hurt the trees.”

Wayne would be able to tell. He’s a forester.

The modern method is big step up from the old way of hanging buckets under taps on trees, though the lines are vulnerable to strong wind and wildlife.

“Squirrels will sometimes chew on the lines,” Wayne said. “And we think we had a bear come and bite through the line.”

When that happens, it slows or stops production until repairs are made.

“Sometimes you can hear it hissing and you just follow the sound,” Wayne said.

It’s only Frostmore Farm’s second year with the tubing and vacuum pumps. They’re still learning and still growing. Construction around the old family farm has been ongoing.

Since they started collecting sap and making syrup in 2009, they’ve done everything piecemeal, cobbling together machinery and working the land in their spare time.

Rachel is physician’s assistant. Adam is a civil engineer. They’re industrious people, but rely on help from friends and family for the roughly two month maple sugar season.

“With the winter we’ve had, we could have gotten started during the last week of January, but you can only really go until about the first week of April,” Wayne said.

The sap contains more sugar at the beginning of the season, about two percent, and steadily drops until early April when it’s around half a percent.

“Some people say they can taste the sugar at two percent. I can’t,” Wayne said.

He also didn’t recommend sampling the sap at the end of the season, when it’s mostly just water and the minerals the trees pulled from the dirt.

“It’s not good.”

Through processing the sap several times by reverse osmosis, the Taylors can get the sugar content up to 10 percent.

The reverse osmosis system they use, Rachel explained, isn’t elaborate, but is similar to the type found on cruise ships.

“The big difference is they do it for the water and throw out the byproduct,” she laughed.

Frostmore Farm does the opposite: keeping the sap and dumping the pure water.

“We’ve talked about maybe bottling that,” she said. “We could call it ‘tree water,’ maybe.”

It’s just a maybe.

After the sap is distilled, it’s filtered and cooked down using a wood fired evaporator to remove the remaining minerals and the sugar sand, a mixture of calcium and sugar that is basically grit.

“In the old days, they used an egg to pull the minerals out,” Taylor explained. “It would turn the egg black!”

Sediment would bond with the fat in the egg, and was then skimmed off or discarded after the remaining syrup was poured through a cheese cloth.

Frostmore Farm use paper filters.

The syrup is cooked down until it reaches 67 percent sugar, then cooled and poured into containers of various shapes and sizes for sale.

As far as big-time, corporate maple syrup suppliers go, Frostmore Farm really can’t compete. Aside from the vast array of maple-flavored syrups like “Log Cabin” and “Aunt Jemima,” which dominate the pancake and waffle breakfast battlefield, the real maple syrup suppliers are well established.

Canadian farms and the syrup producers from the great state of Vermont are way ahead of them. They have more taps, more experience and a lead into the market that goes back decades.

Taylor laughs about expanding their operations, seeding new trees and building some future West Virginia maple empire.

She said that sounds more like her husband, and they have plenty of trees already.

It is still mostly a hobby, and syrup is only part of the plan.

“We’re looking at a lot of added-value products,” she said.

Instead of just bottling syrup, Frostmore Farms also makes maple candy and a spreadable maple cream.

“It’s the best thing,” Taylor said. “It’s my absolute favorite.”

When they sell their products at shows and expos, they also sell maple syrup cotton candy and have plans to branch out into candied nuts.

All of these are more profitable than the syrup, not that they’re strictly profit driven.

At the bottom of the hill, next to the road, Frostmore Farm has set up a self-service food stand for their various products. You pay on the honor system.

“Sometimes we make a couple of hundred dollars in a week,” Taylor chirped.

And so far, everyone has been very honest.

“One time, we found a bag open and a half-eaten piece of candy,” she said.

It was just the one time.

Over the long-term, Taylor said they’d like to do more to develop the old family property, maybe turn it into a farmstay, where people on vacation could come to work on a rustic farm.

The hundred year-old farmhouse, with a lot of work, could be turned into a gift shop.

Single pane windows, some of them broken, need to be replaced and the house has taken some other damage over time. At some point in the last 50 years, someone lost control of a tractor and hit the house, but the old, tin roof is ruler-straight.

“The foundation is strong and solid,” Taylor said.

___

Information from: The Charleston Gazette-Mail, https://wvgazettemail.com.

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