Maple syrup production at the Brown family farm, north of Fredericktown in Knox County, has been a mainstay for about as long as anyone can remember.
Brothers Dan and Kelly Brown, 63 and 64, have tapped all of their lives, the same is true of their father, the late William Brown, who built the family’s current sugarhouse in 1948.
But the history goes much deeper. In the early 1900s, several thousand people met on the Brown property for a social event called the Waterford Picnic, a carnival that drew people from all over.
And there is evidence that some of the farm’s oldest trees have been tapped since the early 1800s.
“When we cut some of the 200-year-old trees down, we could tell they were tapped,” said Dan Brown.
The family has owned the same land since the 1840s and said it has been continuously tapped since 1948, when Will and his wife, Kate, began with just 600 taps. Today, the Browns have 1,800 taps, and come late winter, it’s just a fact of life that they’re going to find themselves working in the sugarhouse.
The Browns say making syrup is a lot like farming — once you get started, you keep going.
“It’s just what we do,” Dan Brown said. “It’s such a unique product for one thing. The history of it, the whole tradition of it. And I enjoy working in the woods.”
Kelly Brown, who manages the Owl Creek Produce Auction, said it’s fun to make a product people enjoy and want.
“Our track record tells us we make a pretty good product that consumers really like and they tell us that,” he said. “There’s terrific demand for our product.”
Syrup produced on the Brown family farm is marketed under the name Bonhomie Acres, a name Dan and Kelly’s mother, Kate, chose that stood for “gentle nature” or “good-natured man.” According to Dan Brown, it was mostly a way of giving the farm a unique name, outside of just “Brown’s maple farm.”
Bonhomie Acres maple syrup can be found in retail stores as far south as Dayton and Cincinnati, and it is sold locally and also at the farm at 7001 Quaker Road.
The Browns sell between 2,500-3,000 gallons of syrup a year, and it all begins the same way.
In late spring, when the winter freeze begins to break, the sap in the maple trees begins to flow. The freeze-thaw cycle that is typical of February-March keeps the sap flowing, and makes for the most ideal window for collection.
The Browns rely on some of the old-fashioned metal buckets, and they also rely on many miles of plastic tubing that drain near the sugarhouse. They tap about 45 acres of local woodland and rent an additional 90 acres that drains into collection tanks, which has to be trucked to the sugarhouse.
In addition to gravity and the natural flow of the sap, the line system relies on a vacuum pump, which, lowers the pressure outside of the tree and helps stimulate the flow of sap. The trees are unharmed and provide decades of service — some that have lived 200 years.
Inside the sugarhouse, the Browns rely on a 3-by-12-foot oil-fired evaporator, which removes the water from the sap, resulting in maple syrup. The syrup is first stored in barrels, and throughout the year, Dan repackages the syrup into retail containers with the farm’s name on the front.
Dan Brown, who is also president of Ohio Maple Producers Association, said the demand for maple products is strong, because it’s a healthy sweetener, and maple has a unique, natural flavor.
He said Ohio is fortunate when it comes to maple, because producers can reach major population centers in less than an hour, while an operation in Vermont or Canada might have to drive several hours to reach a significant market area.
“To make syrup in Ohio, it’s the best of both worlds,” Dan Brown said. “We have a population with a very large disposable income and if you make a good product, there’s no reason you can’t market it right here in Ohio.”
As president, Brown tries to advocate for the industry and ensure Ohio maple producers have a seat at the table when it comes to important production issues and policies. His father, William Brown, helped run the Malabar Farm maple syrup days for about 30 years, where the family worked to show school children how syrup is made.
Although the farm no longer does tours at its own location, the Browns are supporters of the educational component, and they support the growth of the maple industry across Ohio.
Dan’s wife, Kathie, and Kelly’s wife, Marcia, also help with the operation, along with Dan’s son, Dane, and Kelly’s son, Ross.
During the off-season, the Browns do some crop farming and other activities, but their main focus is maple syrup production.
The past couple years have been difficult for maple producers, due to unseasonably warm temperatures and a lack of normal weather patterns.
The Browns say climate change is definitely impacting what they do, but they’re adjusting.
“I’m sure we’re in a climate change, but we’re not in a weather-changed-forever,” Kelly Brown said. “You go through this stuff. Every once in a while you have a bad year and that’s all there is to it.”
But the Browns aren’t ready to call 2018 a bad year just yet. If they have to work late at night, or late into March, that’s what they’ll do.
“Three good weeks in March and we could make a lot of syrup,” Kelly said.
Even 10 days would make a big improvement, Dan said.
The Browns are hoping that March will be a bumper month, as it has been in the past. And according to the National Weather Service, which shows a lot of up-and-down temperature swings, the Browns might be in for a good month of maple syrup.
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