By Matt Reese
There is something special about winter in the woods on the Herring Farm in Wyandot County. The crunch of snow underfoot muffled amid the trees, the red flash of a winter cardinal, the tracks of wildlife — the Herring woods have all the same appeal as any other. But as the temperatures begin to warm in late winter, a flurry of activity takes place as it has for centuries before among the trees on the wooded hills of the farm.
“Around 1850 my great, great grandfather started making maple syrup here and the Indians had been making syrup before that,” said Dave Herring, who grew up learning the details of his family’s tradition in the winter woods. “My family has made syrup ever since then on this farm. I am the fifth generation and my boys are the sixth generation. It was all done with buckets back when I was young. It was all wood fired. We cut wood all year long getting ready for sugar camp.”
Herring has many maple-flavored memories from his youth.
“My grandfather hated horses so he had the first tractors around in the 1920s. That was before my time so I can’t remember working with horses,” Herring said. “We always had a lot of food out while we were making syrup. Neighbors would always come out and sit around the fire and would visit most of the time. I can remember when they’d put egg whites in the syrup to collect all of the sugar sand and particles that was in it.”
Herring is sure to point out, though, that, past or present, the process of making maple syrup is not a leisurely activity.
“When you’re boiling syrup, you’re busy all of the time. You never had over 5 or 10 minutes of free time. You have to fire it every 15 minutes,” he said. “You never had time to sit and do anything. We had to fire the furnace constantly and watch the syrup pretty closely. You can hardly take your eyes off it. We have it at 218 degrees. Just a few degrees over that and it goes to sugar. If it goes to sugar, you ruin your evaporator.”
There have been many changes through the years, but the basics of the process remain the same. Due to the mild winter weather, the hard maple trees on the farm were tapped in late January this year. The trees are typically not tapped until mid-February.
“We use these electric battery operated drills for when we tap and that has really helped. The boys can just about tap everything in one day. We’re tapping between 1,400 and 1,500 trees,” Herring said. “While they’re tapping, I work in the sugarhouse putting the evaporator together and getting everything washed up. I also work on the vacuum pump. By the time the boys are getting everything tapped, everything is pretty well ready to go.”
Then, it depends on the weather.
“If there is frost on the ground and temperatures stay around 40, it will run all night and we can bring in 4,000 to 6,000 gallons of water in 24 hours,” he said. “Of course when it freezes at night, it stops and that gives you 10 or 12 hours of running time.”
In the end, it takes quite a bit of the watery sap from the tree to make a little bit of syrup.
“It takes about 50 gallons of water to make one gallon of syrup. Sometimes it is a little less than that,” he said. “It varies between 45 and 50 gallons for one gallon of syrup. The amount per tap can vary a lot. We get about a half-gallon of maple syrup per tap, per year, which is really high. It used to be only a quart a tap. And that can vary. It can be anywhere from a quart and a half to three quarters of a gallon depending on the season. It takes four maple trees that are 40 years old tapped for six weeks to make one gallon of syrup. That is really amazing when you think about it.”
The finished syrup is stored in barrels until it is sold.
“We can keep it fresh in the barrels. Stainless steel is the best, but there are some plastic barrels we’re using now too,” Herring said. “We keep it in a cooler at 36 degrees all year. We just emptied everything out from last year before we started this maple syrup season. We sell it through different stores, we sell right from the house and we sell a lot of it commercially by the barrel.”
Maybe the most interesting end use of the syrup is for making some of the sweet treats at Coons Candy just down the road, and just off of U.S. Route 23. The tasty syrup also finds its way into many different recipes in the Herring home.
“It is a great product. We love it. It is the healthiest sugar other than honey,” he said. “We put it on a lot of foods. I love it in baked beans. My wife has a lot of different recipes. It is wonderful on ice cream and oatmeal.”
The delicious dining with maple syrup is an enjoyable pursuit for the family, but it does take plenty of work.
“There is a lot of work with it. Getting the lines ready is a big job and there is constant repair,” Herring said. “Squirrels chew holes in the lines, trees fall and take down lines, and deer do some damage. Then it takes a lot of cleaning, rebuilding and remodeling in the sugarhouse. There is a lot more time involved than most people think. It is not terribly hard work, but it is steady work. I’ll tell you, when you’ve been out working in the woods for a day, you know you did something.”
And when it is winter in the woods, everyone knows where the Herring family will be — carrying on the long held family tradition amid the maple trees.
“It gets in your blood,” he said. “It is something you grow up with and you can just feel when its maple syrup time.”
For more on this sweet tradition, see the March issue of Ohio’s Country Journal.