West Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture Kent Leonhardt and Chef Paul Smith of Charleston were on hand at the Ronk Family Maple Farm in Alum Creek to kick off the 2022 Mountain State Maple Days on February 19.
While the event featured a ceremonial tree tapping, it most certainly was not the kick off to West Virginia’s 2022 maple sap gathering season. The maple syrup season begins when trees thaw during the warmth of day and freeze in the cold of night. The season has yet to begin for producers in the higher elevations in the eastern part of the state.
For Calvin Hall of Southside, the season began on January 7 when he gathered his first sap. Hall’s season will end about the time that gathering begins in the eastern mountains.
On Monday (this week), Hall was busy concentrating more than 100 gallons of concentrated sap into two gallons of syrup. Hall is among the producers who use reverse osmosis to increase the sap sugar concentration to 4% from the 2% which Mother Nature produces.
“Maple sap does not age well,” Hall stated. “Quality of the syrup is dependent upon processing the sap quickly. The best syrup is from sap gathered in the previous day.”
The sap which Hall processed on Monday was very fresh. Sunday, February 20, was an ideal sap producing day with an early morning low in the teens followed by a high in the 50’s. Hall will be offering a portion of Monday’s makings to visitors at the Putnam County Farmers Market at Valley Park in Hurricane. The market will open on the first Saturday in May.
Hall has a number of customers who are not willing to wait. “There are some who asked me to notify them as I start producing,” he said. “The Putnam Farmers Market is special. Everything that is sold there must be produced in the local area.”
Hall expects to produce about 20 gallons of golden brown sweetness this year. “This year will be much better than 2021. Last year’s ice storm caused me to lose a lot of production.” The ice storm caused branches and trees to tear down the 3/16 inch tubing which gravity feeds into Hall’s collecting tank. Hall’s tubing network currently serves 61 trees.
Hall is one of sixty maple syrup producers in West Virginia. Agriculture Commissioner Kent Leonhardt stated that West Virginia had 77,000 taps in 2021 that produced 13,000 gallons of syrup worth $339,000. Leonhardt said the Mountain State has approximately 164 million sugar maples within its forested areas, more than found in Vermont.
Paul Ronk of Alum Creek considers himself a small producer with 173 taps. Ronk places taps in all sugar maples with diameters greater than a dinner plate. He has some large maples (3 dinner plates in diameter) in which he places three taps. Ronk operates a wood-fired evaporator which can produce one gallon of syrup per hour.
Ronk said that he spends three hours a day in the woods. Falling trees and branches are not the only reason that tubing collection networks must be regularly checked. Ronk’s network has been disrupted in past times by unwelcome black bears.
The first thing which visitors to the 2022 Maple Day at the Ronk Family Farm was 3/16 inch tubing connected to sycamore trees. Sycamores also produce sugary sap, albeit of much lower content than maples. Ronk’s sycamore endeavor is part of a state funded project.
Chef Paul (operator of 1010 Bridge Restaurant) was present at the Maple Day Kickoff to assist in promoting West Virginia’s maple syrup industry.