In the midst of one of the coldest winters in several years, some area maple syrup producers have just begun tapping their trees to get to the sweet sap.
Ted Rupe's family spent last Wednesday and Thursday tapping nearly 800 trees on their family's multi-generational farm north of Cortland in preparation for this year's maple syrup season.
"There have been years that we began as early as late January, but, on average, we usually begin sometime in February," Rupe said. "We generally are finishing in mid- to late March, when the weather is so warm that there is no overnight freeze and the sap does not flow in the warmth of the day."
Six generations of the Rupe-Crouch families have been making syrup for more than 100 years in Green Township. Three generations, including Rupe's parents, Frank and Doris, who both are 83, Ted and his siblings as well as their children, now are running the maple syrup operations.
The season to extract sap from the trees generally is six weeks to two months.
"Because we are starting so late, it may be three to four weeks," Ted Rupe said. "We do not have enough to start boiling."
The elder Rupes said they're pleased their children and grandchildren are continuing the traditions begun when Doris' great-grandmother purchased the farm.
Frank and Doris plan to continue doing what they can to help as long as they can.
"This generation has better equipment than we had," Frank Rupe said. "I can remember when we went to get the sap using a horse and wagon.
"We're already making arrangements that it will remain in our family."
The majority of the world's maple syrup is produced in 15 states of the Great Lakes region and in eastern Canada. Ohio ranks either third or fourth in the amount of maple syrup produced. It produces an average of 155,000 gallons a year.
Approximately 60 percent of Ohio's maple syrup production is in Ashtabula, Geauga, Portage and Trumbull counties.
"We are in this part of the world that has the right combination of freezing nights and warm days that allow the maple tree sap to flow, which is used to make the syrup," Terese Volkman, the coordinator of the annual Ohio Maple Producers Association Maple Madness tour. The tour started this weekend and continues this weekend.
It takes about 40 to 50 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of maple syrup.
Although there has been some modernization, the sap historically has been collected by placing stainless steel stiles into red, black and sugar maple trees and allowing the sap to flow into buckets. In recent years, tubing has been used to connect trees and send the sap either to storage tanks or directly to evaporators where it is boiled.
Jared Sutton, a fifth-generation producer at the Sutton Maple Syrup in Kinsman, said his family began using tubing, instead of buckets, in the early 1990s. They also have been using a system of reverse osmosis, which allows the production of syrup from sap in up to 70 percent less time than using older methods.
"It is much more efficient," Dick Sutton described. "We're using less energy to boil the sap and it takes significantly less time."
The boiling takes all of the water out of the sap, leaving the syrup, which then is either bottled or canned to be sold directly to customers or to maple syrup markets.
While Sutton family is no longer placing buckets at each tree, Jared Sutton said they must go out to check lines to make sure animals haven't ripped them and that they are not clogged.
"It is a lot of manual labor, Jared Sutton said.
He says the long, cold winter has affected their business. They began tapping the trees on Feb. 23.
"Last year at this time, we produced 635 gallons of syrup by this time," Jared Sutton described. "So far this year, we've done 45 gallons."
Volkman described syrup production as big business.
"Maple syrup and wine production are the two areas of agriculture that generates tourism, which impact local economies," Volkman said.
Local drive-it-yourself tours allow Ohio and Pennsylvania residents to travel to 48 different locations throughout the states to see how maple syrup is produced, get samples, and buy some for themselves.
The Rupe farm is not on the tour, but the Hopewell Sugarhouse, 9489 state Route 534, in Mesopotamia; the Two Trees Syrup, 4938 Gardner Barclay Road, Farmdale; and the Sutton Sugarhouse, 4200 Goff Court, Kinsman, are three Trumbull area locations that are on it.
There are five maple syrup-producing sites in Ashtabula, 19 in Geauga and one in Mahoning County that are on the tour. The original tour was organized in 2001 by Geauga County's Ohio State University Extension Office. It was taken over by the Maple Producers Association in 2009 and this year's tour is its biggest.
Both Volkman and Rupe said it is too early to tell how the extended freezing cold of this winter will economically impact the industry in Ohio.
"In other areas of the state, where there has been more below-freezing nights and warmer daytime temperatures, tapping and cooking may have begun earlier," Volkman said. "This is a difficult year."
Rep. Joe Patterson is working to get March declared Maple Month in Ohio.