September 30, 2014

Medina
Cloudy
62°F

Pure Passion: Maple Valley Farm joins March tour of Northeast Ohio sugaring operations

By Sandy Ciupak
Special to The Gazette

GUILFORD TWP. — The Fulton family’s Maple Valley Farm may be on the March Maple Madness Tour for the first time this year, but their maple sugaring experience goes back more than a century.

In the late 1800s, Isaac Fulton established the Guilford Township farm at 8701 Hubbard Valley Road. Today, Isaac’s great-grandson Steve and his son Andrew run the farm, milking 100 dairy cows; planting corn, soybeans, and wheat; raising bull calves; and — for 3 to 4 weeks every March — producing hundreds of gallons of award-winning pure maple syrup.

Sugar season
Sugar season usually comes to Northeast Ohio right around the second week of March, when daytime temperatures hover around 40 degrees and drop back down to about 25 degrees at night. The repeated freezing and thawing starts the sap flowing through the sugar maple trees.

For the Fultons, that means a week or more spent tapping the trees — up to 500 trees a day, enough work to keep as many as eight people occupied. Modern technology has taken some of the manual labor out of sugaring, but tapping remains a time-consuming, one-hole-at-a-time job that must be redone every season.

Once the trees are tapped, the Fultons take advantage of some of that 21st-century technology to get the sap from the trees to the sugar camp, the building where the sap will be boiled down into syrup. While they still use collection buckets on 500 of the trees, Steve Fulton said the rest of their 2,000 taps are on a pipeline system, a network of plastic tubing that carries the sap into large storage containers.

Last season, the Fultons added a new piece of equipment to one of their collection systems that uses a vacuum to increase sap production. The advantage: a 50 percent increase in sap.

The disadvantage?

“When you put a vacuum on your pipelines, you find all your leaks,” Fulton said.

Sugar camp
The sugar camp is the heart of the operation, and Fulton is proud of the new insulated building that sits near the farmhouse. Until the 1960s, the operation was done in the “sugar bush” — back in the woods where the trees are tapped. Around 1960, Fulton’s dad, Gene, who died last spring, built a sugar camp closer to the farmhouse. For decades, that was where the sap was boiled down into syrup, first over a wood fire, and later, using natural gas heat. Today, to heat their smaller, more efficient evaporator (the “cooker”), the Fultons have found that fuel oil is the best choice.

Between the 2006 and 2007 seasons, the family completely remodeled the sugar camp with a new roof, concrete floors and a ventilation system Fulton designed to handle the steam produced by the sugaring process. Fulton is clearly proud of the new building, and equally proud that its walls — for sentimental reasons — are the original wood walls from the first sugar camp.

Inside the sugar camp, just beyond the stacks of galvanized steel collection buckets, a temperature-controlled room houses something else Fulton is proud of: his reverse osmosis machine.
This piece of modern technology can take 500 gallons of sap and remove 400 gallons of water from it in just one hour. This means that only the remaining 100 gallons has to be boiled, cutting down on time and labor.

The concentrated sap is sent to the evaporator, where it is boiled at high temperatures until it is almost ready to be called maple syrup. The final cooking takes place in a smaller pan, followed by filtering and bottling.

Syrup business
People don’t understand why pure maple syrup costs so much, Fulton said — until they see what goes into making it.
“If people see how it’s made, they will buy it,” said Fulton, whose $43-per-gallon price was one of the lowest in the area last season.

While some maple producers expand their product line to include candy and other maple-related items, the Fultons tend to stick with maple syrup. Steve Fulton’s mother, Grace Fulton, sometimes makes maple syrup candy for the Medina County Fair or for craft shows, but she finds the process too time-consuming to think about mass producing it.

Instead, the Fultons sell bulk syrup to Richards Maple Products in Chardon City, and some of that syrup ends up being made into candy — or finds its much-diluted way onto grocery store shelves inside popular brands like Log Cabin or Aunt Jemima. Retail brands advertising “real maple syrup flavor” may contain as little as 2 percent of the real thing.

Some of his customers will give their kids the store-bought syrup, said Fulton, smiling, and save the real stuff for themselves.

Asked for their own favorite maple syrup recipes, Grace Fulton and Steve Fulton’s wife, Beth Fulton, were quick to mention Grace’s baked beans.

But an actual recipe?

Both women laughed.

“It’s a hit-or-miss thing,” Grace Fulton said.
Added Beth Fulton, “A little dab of this, a little dab of that!”

Did you know?
o A grove of sugar trees is called a “sugarbush.”
o In a good season, each tap, or hole, produces about 10 gallons of sap.
o It takes 10 gallons of sap to make a single quart of maple syrup.
o One gallon of syrup requires 35-45 gallons of sap.
o In Northeast Ohio retail stores, you can expect to pay up to $60 per gallon for pure maple syrup; buying direct from producers can save you $15 or more per gallon.
o Out of the 12 maple product-producing states, Ohio usually ranks either 4 or 5, depending on the year.
— Sandy Ciupak

Ciupak may be reached at accent@ohio.net.