How Maple Creek Farm near Burnsville became the one and only maple syrup producer in North Carolina.
On an icy night in January, Richard Sanders stepped out onto the front porch of his little white farmhouse at the base of a mountain near Burnsville and drank in the frigid air.
The weather was perfect. The next day would be perfect, too, with daytime highs creeping into the 50s. Freezing nights followed by warm days help the watery sap flow freely from the farm’s sugar maples. Sanders would soon be busy.
He always is in January and February on Maple Creek Farm, North Carolina’s only commercial maple syrup producer and the southernmost maple syrup operation in the United States. His busiest time can be boiled down to three or four days in February, when he and an intern split 24-hour shifts reducing sap to syrup as quickly as possible so their storage tanks don’t overflow with sap.
“We thought about doing 12-hour shifts, but then someone would always be working the night shift,” says Sanders. “Plus, it’s nice to have a full day to recover.”
Between sips of strong black coffee, Sanders and his intern toil in the steamy confines of the sugar shack, constantly feeding the wood-fired evaporator with fresh logs cut from trees on the farm.
The evaporator features a long and narrow fluted pan divided into two sections, the front pan and the back pan. As the sap boils, the water evaporates and the remaining fluid becomes denser and sweeter. The sap works its way from the rear of the back evaporator pan to the front evaporator pan, where it reaches full syrup consistency and is filtered for bottling.
The operation is as grassroots as it comes, which is why this past February, when Sanders offered maple syrup tours for the first time, 500 people came out to get an up-close look.
“I figured I’d be leading a couple of groups of maybe eight to ten people,” he says.
He should have known better. Maple Creek Farm’s maple syrup business has exceeded expectations from the start.
Shortly after they bought the 106-acre farm five years ago, Liz and John Swann hired Sanders to manage it. He was a good hire. Sanders has a Master’s Degree in Forestry from Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences, and he had previously managed a 600-acre forest for Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa. The Swanns gave him a simple goal. Grow and raise whatever he could to make the farm financially self-sufficient.
Sanders and his wife, Molly Nicholie, who helps him with farm work when she’s not working for the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, took a deep breath. Most of the property is rocky and vertical, and 80 acres of it is forested — not ideal farmland. But they grew produce wherever they could and raised livestock, and soon they were selling meats, produce, and baked goods at farmers markets in Asheville and Burnsville.
John Swann had an environmental assessment done on the property to see if they were missing anything. The farm had an abundance of sugar maple trees, concentrated in several thick stands in the mountains. Swann sells gallons of maple syrup imported from up North at Greenlife Grocery, the two natural foods grocery stores he and Liz own. He encouraged Sanders to draw sap from the trees.
“In the winter of 2007, we tapped a couple of trees, just fooling around with it,” recalls Sanders. “The next year, we tapped a few more trees and produced about 25 gallons of syrup.”
Last year was the first big push. Sanders produced just shy of 100 gallons after tapping 75 percent of the trees on the property.
To do it, he stretched three miles of tubing from each tap to carry the sap down the hills to two holding tanks near the sugar shack. Once the sap flowed through the evaporator, Sanders and Nicholie bottled the syrup in containers no larger than 12 ounces to sell on-site and at the farmers markets.
“They don’t have enough supply to sell it at our grocery stores,” says Swann. “We also want the farm to be self-sufficient financially, and if they sell direct to the consumer they can charge full retail price. They make more money and have a unique item to sell that draws attention to everything else the farm offers.”All the 2009 syrup was gone by August, so this year Sanders put about 600 taps in 400 trees. He also set up the evaporator in a brand new building. After running the evaporator in a small shed near the house last year, he is now boiling sap in a two-story building made from wood sourced on the farm. When finished, it will include a certified kitchen, bathrooms, and a workshop area. In the meantime, Sanders has more space to shovel firewood, monitor the evaporator, and bottle syrup, and tour groups have more room to watch him do it.
“We’ve had people wait for us to bottle the syrup so they could buy it on the spot,” he says.
People have even offered to pitch in, throwing wood into the evaporator.
“I haven’t gotten anyone to help me chop the wood, though,” he adds. “Maybe this is the year.”
A sapped industry
People who know syrup say the Maple Creek Farm version is very good. Professional tasters in New England describe the flavor as fruity and floral, a departure from syrup produced in the Northeast and Upper Midwest. Sanders says visitors from New Hampshire and Vermont tell him the same thing, which begs the question: Why aren’t more North Carolina farms making it?
“The main reason it never took hold here is that transporting sap down to the evaporator is very tedious,” says Swann. “Up North, where the land is more level, you can take a horse and sled with a tank, drive around through the trees and pour the buckets into the tank and drive it on down to the evaporator. These mountains are so rough and vertical, there’s no way you can get a horse and sled up to the trees.”
Nevertheless, Swann said he has heard that North Carolina farmers did produce maple syrup in small quantities centuries ago. Swann and Sanders offer two theories when asked why production died off. One, tapping trees before the tube system was invented became too difficult. And two, sugar maples were harvested for the state’s burgeoning furniture industry.
“There’s a history of logging in this part of the state,” says Sanders. “They did a lot of clear cutting here. In this valley alone, half of what is now forest was pasture.”
Swann says by the time tubing systems were introduced to the industry about 20 years ago, maple syrup production in the state had dried up. Until now.
Sanders is continuing to learn the ins and outs of syrup production. He and Swann have traveled to Vermont to visit the maple syrup operation of one of Swann’s grocery store vendors, Coombs Family Farms. Owner Arnold Coombs, a sixth-generation maple syrup producer, has taken Sanders under his wing, offering advice whenever Sanders needs it. Still, there are things Coombs can’t help with.
“The seasons are really weird down here, and I’m still trying to figure it out,” says Sanders.
North Carolina winters aren’t quite as predictable as they are in the Northeast, which means Sanders must be ready for the 48- to 72-hour rush of sap any time from January until early March. The change in temperature from above to below freezing causes water uptake from the soil, and temperatures above freezing cause stem pressure, which, along with gravity, pushes sap from the 2-inch-deep tap holes and through the tubing.
With the trees maxed out with taps this year, Sanders is even busier than he was last winter.
“Well, I’m a night person anyway,” he says, pondering those inevitable 24-hour shifts.
He knows he’ll get plenty of sleep when the taps run dry next month.
Maple Creek Farm
1641 Lickskillet Road
Burnsville, N.C. 28714
Chris Gigley is a freelance writer living in Greensboro.