As the first break in daytime temperatures hits Eastern Kentucky in late winter, sap rises in the area's many red and sugar maples, and maple syrup season begins in earnest. If a group of producers has their way, the Bluegrass State will be known for something other than horses, bourbon, and basketball; it will be maple syrup country, as well.

Formed in 2017, the Kentucky Maple Syrup Association, with its roughly two dozen members would like to add the sweet stuff to the state's identity as a niche product. Keith Moore of Savage Farms in Lawrence County, Seth Long of SouthDown Farm in Letcher County, and Woody Hartlove of Hartlove Farms in Harlan County, helped form the organization. They see unlimited potential for maple syrup in Kentucky. “We are trying to bring this maple industry to the forefront here in Kentucky,” said Moore, who says he is arguably the state's largest producer of maple syrup. His Savage Farms is located near Fallsburg in Lawrence County on the West Virginia border. “As Seth (Long) and I say, we have an untapped resource here in Kentucky, because we have a ton of maple trees, but we have not been utilizing them.” Red maples are fast growing trees, and forestry management experts often recommend removing them in favor of other hardwoods. However, those tapping the trees for the sap say not so fast. “Because so many of our woodlands have not been managed well after strip mining, what comes up are these fast growing maple trees,” Long said. “Some of my best trees are on strip-mined land.”

(L to R) Shad Baker, Seth Long, and Jeremy Williams discuss the season's collection. Here, a collection tank holds sap from multiple trees at Long's Southdown Farm in Letcher County. From the tank, the sap will run downhill to the sugarhouse, where the Lo

(L to R) Shad Baker, Seth Long, and Jeremy Williams discuss the season's collection. Here, a collection tank holds sap from multiple trees at Long's Southdown Farm in Letcher County. From the tank, the sap will run downhill to the sugarhouse, where the Longs will boil it down to syrup.

Extension Agents Doing Their Part 

The founders of the Kentucky Maple Syrup Association credit the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service with supporting their organization's formation. Agriculture and natural resources agents, Shad Baker in Letcher County, Harlan County's Jeremy Williams, and Virginia Cooperative Extension agent and colleague Phillip Meeks started the Kentucky-Virginia Maple Syrup School in 2016.

“The school was a great success in 2016, and those in attendance said they wanted to have one each year,” Williams said. “After that first school ended, a group of interested individuals met to discuss the possibility of having a maple syrup association.”

The men were still talking about it when they met this past fall to plan the second maple syrup school. The second event attracted even more participants—more than 50 producers and interested people from a four-state area, including Ohio and West Virginia. A few weeks later, the Kentucky Maple Syrup Association became a reality, with the extension agents playing the role of facilitators.

“Forming this maple syrup association is an opportunity for us to get together and learn and educate,” Moore said. “And not only that, but to educate our state about this new product in Kentucky.”

Before the association and the school came into being, interest was running high concerning maple syrup production in Kentucky. Extension agents and several woodland owners journeyed to maple syrup country in winter 2015. They visited several New England maple syrup operations going from small (Grandpa Joe's Sugar House in Maine, with 450 to 500 trees tapped) to one of the largest (Bascom's Maple Farms in New Hampshire, where 84,000 taps produce 40,000 gallons of syrup).

“What we brought back was a knowledge of how to do this at every level,” Baker said. “It doesn't have to be anything complicated, and it doesn't have to be expensive. We feel like this is something that really has potential for Kentucky in general, and specifically for Eastern Kentucky.”

Meeks, a former Kentucky extension agent, said Eastern Kentucky and Wise County, Virginia, have similar needs and expectations.

“We set as one of our goals here in Wise County to do more ecotourism-type work,” he said. “That lines up with what goes on in Eastern Kentucky on a lot of small farms. There are now maple syrup festivals in Virginia that go on in March during maple syrup season.”

Meeks said he could envision people coming to the area in March to tour some of the sugarhouses to watch the maple sap being boiled down to make syrup. There are also value-added products to buy such as maple popcorn, maple nuts, and maple candy.

Using a refractometer, Keith Moore checks the sugar content of the maple sap in his holding tank at his Savage Farms in Lawrence County.

Statewide Potential

Since forming the maple syrup association, Moore said they are learning about other maple syrup producers across the state that have sizable operations. The association is working to bring everyone together.

“We have to reach out and find the people who are the backyarders, but wanting to grow,” Moore said. “There is no doubt that the maple industry is going to become viable in Kentucky, because the resource is right here; we just need to get people to understand it. And just for the record, if you make a drop of syrup, you will sell it, because people want it.”

Ideally, the best time for sap collection in Kentucky is when nighttime temperatures are below freezing, and daytime highs are in the 40s or above, usually mid-January to mid-March. Depending on weather conditions and a tree's age, size, and health, one tap could yield on average 10 to 20 gallons of sap. It generally takes 40 to 42 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.

Long calls Moore, who has been doing it for 20 years, the pioneer of maple syrup in Kentucky. Going into 2018, Moore already had 1,000 taps on maple trees, drawing the sap out by way of a mechanical vacuum. Long had 95 taps last year and was shooting for 250 in 2018.

“Once you start, you get the bug. Call it maple fever,” Long said. “It’s like an addiction. You can’t stop, you want to do more.”

Sheryl Long, Jerry Williams, Jeremy Williams, and Shad Baker discuss production techniques around the evaporator in the Long's sugarhouse at Southdown Farm in Letcher County.

There's Help Available

Grant money is available from tobacco settlement funds to help offset costs for those who want to get started in the maple syrup business. The Kentucky Agricultural Development Board awards money to limited income, low-resource producers. Every grant is worth $5,000 with a $10,000 lifetime cap. Kevin Gurtowski from Kentucky State University works with the small-scale farm grant and spoke with producers at the maple syrup school.

“There are four-categories that we mainly fund. One is value-added maple products, which covers maple syrup,” Gurtowski said. “We cover canning, breads, jams, lotions— basically anything you take from an agricultural product and turn into something of more value.”

The grant program renewed for 2018. A Kentucky State University committee evaluates and scores the applications.

Sweet notes of syrup waft past your face inside Long's steamy sugarhouse, where Long's wife, Sheryl, is cooking down the sap. The Long family used a $5,000 grant to build their sugarhouse, where they made maple syrup for the first time this year. Another husband and wife team, Amy and Channing Richardson, certified organic farmers at Forgotten Foods Farm in Carter County, also received a 

$5,000 grant to erect a building for a commercial kitchen and walk-in cooler. They have 200 to 300 taps on maple trees and cook the sap outdoors in a temporary shelter with a custom-made evaporator. The Richardsons plan to build a sugarhouse and expand their operation.

“We have a couple thousand trees on the farm, and my neighbors have trees I would be willing to lease,” Channing Richardson said. “We definitely want to upscale.”

Moore said this is just the tip of the iceberg for maple syrup production in Kentucky, and if more people get involved producing it, they can sell all they can make. That's why he believes it's important for producers to band together and join the maple syrup association so they won't compete against one another.

“We are keeping those dollars right here in Kentucky,” Moore said, “and if you taste the maple syrup we are making, you will buy it, because it is an unbelievable product.”

Maple Syrup Grades (L to R): golden, amber, dark, and very dark.