The Sweetness of Virginia’s “Little Switzerland”

Maple Syrup in Highland County

Local high school, FFA and forestry students spent the morning learning about maple sugaring, then tapped some trees for a hands-on experience.

 

Highland County, Virginia may be one of the least populated counties East of the Mississippi, but its heart is big, the mountain views are breathtaking, and maple syrup is the glue that holds the community together.

Each spring, the ~2,000 local residents of Highland County host the second-largest maple festival in the United States, bringing up to 50,000 visitors over the course of two weekends. Guests are welcomed by the high school Maple Princess and Maple Queen, taken on tours of sugar houses and maple stands, and encouraged to indulge in the freshest maple pancakes and donuts you’ll find all year. Folk who make the journey to Highland County are rewarded with sweet treats and a sense of having stepped back in time.

As a precursor to the 2019 Highland County Maple Festival, Laurel Fork Sapsuckers invited local students and community members to tour their sugar house, taste maple syrup straight from the evaporator pans, tap a few trees, and meet with guest of honor: Bettina Ring, Virginia’s Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry.

The maple sap is flowing, and 2019 Maple Princess Carly Thomas and Maple Queen Hannah Newlan of Highland County meet Bettina Ring, the Virginia Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry at the Laurel Fork Sapsuckers sugar camp.

High school students, FFA (Future Farmers of America) students, and forestry students from the local community college mingled with maple syrup producers from across the county. In a welcome address, third-generation maple sugarer Missy Moyers-Jarrells said, “It is important to each of us to continue to pass on the tradition of the Highland County Maple Festival to our younger generation. As we do this, we pass on life lessons such as generosity, kindness, and a willingness and determination to work hard for something that means a lot to you and your community.  We are a very prideful community of our Maple Festival, and I think each visitor to our county can see this through our enthusiasm to tell our story and share knowledge about all things maple.”  

Forestry students from Dabney S. Lancaster Community College with Bettina Ring (second from right) and head of the program Scott Reigel (far right).

Maple sap only flows 6-8 weeks a year, so when the sap runs, the whole community pitches in. From checking the tap lines to splitting wood for the fires that heat the boiling pans for hours on end, there’s constant activity in the sugar camps. Local pastor Andre Crummett is a committed volunteer during maple season, tending fires and skimming solids off the surface of the sap in the boiling pans.

Andre Crummett skims the solids from the surface of the sap as it boils down into syrup.

Highland County borders West Virginia and is cradled by the Allegheny Mountains and Shenandoah Mountain ridge line. Laurel Fork Sapsuckers sits at 4,400 feet. Missy and her family tap a sugar maple stand of about 30 acres, and this year have about 1,200 taps running, though they have the capacity for up to 15,000 taps. “But there’s no way we could process all of that with the equipment we have. That would be scaling up too much… we want to learn and teach on a scale that’s manageable,” says Missy.

Students from the local high school and FFA tour the sugar house, while Missy Moyers-Jarrells of Laurel Fork Sapsuckers explains the process of boiling down the sap into syrup.

As the students, community members and local sugaring folk gathered, Missy thanked them for continuing the sugaring heritage, “… not only within your own family’s history, but throughout our county’s. Your willingness to pass on this tradition will be what keeps maple syrup forever a part of who we are and what our community has worked hard for over the past 61 years.”

The Highland County Maple Festival takes place March 9-10 and March 16-17 in 2019.

An old wood stove heats two 100+ year old boiling pans to evaporate water from the sap. The handles on the boiling pans are made from old wagon wheels, because the old metal doesn’t conduct heat, making it safer to lift the hot pans.
A network of sap tubes weaves through the forest and down the mountain. Sap from over 1,200 taps flows down to one single hose piped into the sugar house. At 4,400 feet Laurel Fork Sapsuckers has plenty of elevation gain to take advantage of.
Highland County maple producers gather for a picture with Bettina Ring, VA Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry.
Ronnie Moyers of Laurel Fork Sapsuckers describes the process of boiling sap to evaporate the water, leaving pure sweet, sweet maple syrup ready for sampling in the 100+ year old boiling pans.
Andre Crummett, a sugar bush volunteer and local pastor, feeds the fire that heats the modern boiling pan.
A network of sap tubes weaves through the forest and down the mountain. Sap from over 1,200 taps flows down to one single hose piped into the sugar house. At 4,400 feet Laurel Fork Sapsuckers has plenty of elevation gain to take advantage of.
Gathering outside the sugar house.
Students and community members trek down the mountain to the sugar house. You can see the blue tap lines running from tree to tree and beginning their descent down the mountain.
Along the steep path from the top of the mountain down to the sugar house, old tree stumps have been carved into resting spots. Great places to take in the view and catch your breath when heading back up the mountain.

 

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