Sweet Spot

Maple syrup production expands in Southwest Virginia

March-April 2020

Maple syrup production has been an Alleghany Highlands tradition for generations, widely celebrated in its 62-year-old Highland County Maple Festival.

But now sap lines are also flowing in Southwest Virginia, where families are finding their sweet spot among Virginia’s diverse agricultural opportunities.

 

“We have an abundance of red and sugar maple trees on our ridges, along with more than adequate slope to run sap lines,” notes Phil Meeks, Virginia Cooperative Extension agent in Wise County.

Some 14 Wise County families produced maple syrup in 2018. David Lawson, owner of Mountainrose Vineyards, is among those who have taken it to a commercial level.

When his children were young, Lawson decided to tap the large silver maple tree growing in his yard. “Birds would peck on that tree, and sap was just running out. That’s when I got the idea to tap it ourselves. I wanted my kids to see the process of how maple syrup is made,” he explains.

KITCHEN DISASTER, BUSINESS EPIPHANY

The next year, Lawson tapped all five maple trees in the yard. Eventually, he bought 100 taps and started looking for more maples on his property. That third January, he tapped about 30 trees and boiled the sap in his parents’ kitchen while they were on vacation.

“I cooked so much that the condensation peeled the wallpaper off the wall,” Lawson recalls with a laugh. “That was when I got banned from cooking syrup inside.”

The family decided to increase their maple syrup output, bottle it and sell it commercially at the winery. That was in winter 2018 when they sold all 18 gallons made from the sap of about 150 trees.

Lawson would like to produce more maple syrup but is limited by the number of trees on his family’s land.

Meeks adds regional interest is growing in uncommon syrup varieties like black walnut, beech and hickory.

“We did an informal taste test, and many prefer black walnut to maple,” he says. “It’s a slightly different taste –– still sweet but a little nutty flavor to it. Sycamore supposedly has a faint butterscotch flavor. There’s an advantage to experiment and broaden our market a bit.”

ALASKAN EXPERIENCE, APPLIED

Michael and Lisa Martucci want to increase maple syrup production on their Doghouse Farm in Wise County. They lived in Alaska, where they had a small farm and made birch syrup. After Michael retired from the Army, they bought land in Wise, close to his family’s home in Pound.

They reached out to Meeks, who visited their property. “We identified 400 to 500 trees we could potentially tap,” Michael says. In 2018, the Martuccis tapped 25 trees and either gave away or sold all the syrup they made from the sap. They’d like to expand production, though that would involve a building in which to cook, an evaporator to help with the boiling process, and hoses and taps, all of which are expensive.

The couple said they will continue making maple syrup regardless of whether they expand.

“It’s been proven that maple syrup is a healthy sweetener,” Michael says.

“Ours is delicious,” Lisa notes.