Maple syrup season usually encompasses the month of March, but warmer temperatures this year moved up that timeline for manufacturers in Lorain County.
“Typically we tap the last week of February or maybe early March,” said John Knoble of Knoble Brothers Farms Maple Products at 9950 Gifford Rd., Amherst. “Usually, we’re experiencing the current weather at the end of March, that perfect mix of hot and cold. This year, we tapped the weekend before Valentine’s Day.”
The farm has been operated by the Knoble family for four generations since before the Great Depression and taps about 900 gallons of sap each year, which translates into 18 gallons of maple syrup.
“We have all the customers we need,” said Joe Knoble, John’s father. “There’s still more of a call for it than ever. All we do is boil the water out of it. It’s a pure, natural thing that people will always want. It sounds simple but it’s a lot of work.”
During the Great Depression, maple syrup played a large part in keeping the farm in the family’s hands.
“My grandfather sold syrup and pussy willow trees to get by,” Joe said. “If it weren’t for those two things, we probably wouldn’t be standing here talking about this. It started as a necessity, but it grew into something special.”
A once-local customer base grew to cover multiple states, and now multiple countries.
“We send syrup to Italy, Mexico, and all over,” Joe said. “In the states, we ship to California, New York, Arizona, Illinois, and Florida.”
Schlechter Brothers Country Harvest, 11252 Baird Rd., Oberlin, has made 300 gallons of syrup so far this year from about 2,800 taps and is aiming for over 400 gallons by the end of March.
The property and sugar bushes have been in the family for six generations with syrup production reigniting about 30 years ago after a 25-year lapse.
Will Schlechter said the market value for a gallon has grown to about $45.
“They used to sell syrup in the 50s for about $6 per gallon,” he said. “Labor is a big thing now. Everyone’s time is worth more. The price of equipment has gone up. There’s more people who want it and not as many woods to produce it.”
The business sells its product to farmers markets and orchards in Oberlin, Amherst, and Berlin Heights.
Schlechter said he thinks part of the appeal of syrup season has to do with it ushering in spring each year.
“After a cold winter, it’s just nice to go out and get in the woods,” he said. “It’s too muddy at that point to do any other kind of farming. People like to come out and learn about the process and we always really enjoy that too.”
In Wellington, the Joppeck family’s Fair View Meadow Farm at 22735 Pitts Rd. has produced maple syrup for more than 20 years.
“The season for us came early this year too,” said Nathan Joppeck. “Right now, we’re waiting to see if the season is over or not. We haven’t determined yet if the the recent cooler temperatures we got are enough to get the trees started again.”
Around 20 gallons annually are made available with most customers falling within a one-hour radius of the property.
“It all depends on the weather,” said Joppeck. “Some years we’ve made over 30 gallons and others have been in the teens. It all depends on how the seasons cooperate. You need that cycling of the warm and cold. Last week, it got warm and stayed warm.”
Most sugar bush purveyors stop tapping once the sap begins to turn yellow, but the elder Knoble said that can be a matter of preference. Schlechter and Joppeck say some of their customers prefer late-season syrup, which tends to be darker, thicker, and stronger flavored.
“Once the trees bud, it turns the sap bitter,” Knoble said. “Some places continue to make it as commercial grade, but we’ve never done that here.”
“Some people are just getting started and others are on the tail end of the season,” said Schlechter. “What makes syrup darker as the season goes on is natural bacteria. You kill all the bacteria when you boil it.”
Joppeck calls his late-season syrup “grade B,” a term the U.S. Department of Agriculture replaced in 2015 due to it falsely leading consumers to consider it of lower quality.
Every variety of syrup is now categorized as “Grade A,” but with the distinction of golden, amber, dark (the former grade B), and very dark.
“We still make a lot of grade B,” Joppeck said. “There’s not a big difference in production, it’s just a matter of waiting until the sap changes a little later in the season.Many of our customers tried it for the first time last year and really liked it.”
Jonathan Delozier can be reached at 440-647-3171 or @DelozierNews on Twitter.