Making maple syrup all about family for first generation producers

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Peter and Sam Hanley
Peter and Sam Hanley stand with their three, children, Ava, Harper and Peter Jr. in the family's sugar house at their property in Newbury, Ohio. Peter and Sam are first generaiton maple syrup producers. (Rachel Wagoner photo)

NEWBURY, Ohio — Making maple syrup started as a hobby for Peter Hanley. It was something he could do in the off season from his landscaping business, Geauga Landcare, to stay busy and get outside in the winter. And it was something Hanley, his wife, Sam, and their three young children could do together. 

“Everything I do comes from a love of the outdoors, and making the most of what mother nature gives us,” he said. 

Six years later and it’s grown into a bit more than a simple hobby for Hanley. He got to share his passion with the community at an open house March 4, as part of the Maple Producers of Northeast Ohio Maple Tour. His Geauga County facility and more than a dozen others will be open to the public again from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. March 11 for the second weekend of the annual tour. 

Peter stood by the wood-fired evaporator all day during the first open house, answering questions and chatting with people as they shuffled through the sugarhouse. That’s the other thing he enjoys about maple syrup production.

“I love how it brings people together,” he said. 

Peter Hanley talks to a visitor about the evaporation unit during an open house March 4 at his sugar house, in Newbury, Ohio. Hanley is a first generation maple syrup producer. (Rachel Wagoner photo)

The first year, the family tapped 50 trees around their home, in Burton, Ohio. Peter boiled the sap down into syrup on a homemade evaporator. It took forever, Sam said, but it was a fun process. 

They made about four gallons of syrup that year. Peter still has a mason jar of his first batch of maple syrup on a shelf in his current sugar house. He turned the first evaporating pan he had made into a shelf next to his current evaporator. 

Things have grown rapidly since then. They moved to family land out in Newbury, Ohio, in 2020, built a sugarhouse dedicated to making maple syrup and kept tapping more trees each year. Last year, they made about 126 gallons of syrup. This year, they’ve made just under 250 gallons, and the season is about over.

Peter is planning an expansion on the sugarhouse for the coming year. He wants to double their production capacity. He’s moving toward making it less of a hobby and more of a side business. 

“I love seeing stuff get bigger and better,” Peter said. “I thought, ‘Well, if I’m doing this, why do I want to spend so much time making one gallon or five gallons. If we’re going to do it, I want to do it right.”

This year they tapped 1,500 trees. Peter also bought sap from three other producers. Each session, he boils down anywhere from 1,000 to 2,000 gallons of sap at a time using a wood-fired evaporator. That will produce about 25 to 30 gallons of syrup. Hanley’s Sugar Camp maple syrup is sold at a few local stores. They also sell it off the farm. 

Visitors to Hanley’s Sugar Camp enjoy samples of maple syrup and food from a food truck during an open house March 4. A second open house will be held at the facility in Newbury, Ohio, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. March 11. (Rachel Wagoner photo)

Maple syrup production is a harbinger of spring. Peter said producers look for a stretch of freezing nights with warmer days to signal its time to start tapping maple trees. The daytime warmth is what gets the sap flowing.

The mild winter meant an earlier start to the season. Peter said they tapped their first trees on Feb. 8. He heard some producers in the region tapped in late January. Typically, tapping hasn’t started until around Presidents Day. 

Collecting sap is a family activity. They move through the woods with an ATV hauling a tank, dumping in buckets of sap from each tapped tree as they go along. Sam said she puts their youngest, 1-year-old Peter Jr., in a carrier on her back while their two daughters, Ava, 5, and Harper, 7, run along on their own. It’s also a cure for the winter blues.

“Sometimes in the winter, the blues get you down, but this gets us all outside,” she said.

The extended family even gets involved. Peter and Sam both come from big families. Peter is one of five children, and Sam is one of six. Their siblings and children help collect sap and do whatever needs to be done for the operation.

Peter and his father, Mark Hanley, built the sugarhouse together a couple years ago. His dad said he’d provide the wood if Peter provided the labor, said Marsha Hanley, Peter’s mother. Logging and working with wood was Mark’s passion, she said.

Mark Hanley passed away Nov. 30, after a brief illness, but he was there at the open house in spirit, his wife said. It was bittersweet to have the whole family together in the building he and Peter constructed.

During the open house March 4, the extended family was there in full force. In a room off the main sugarhouse, Peter’s sister Maureen, sister-in-law Laura and mother manned the gift shop table, selling bottles of maple syrup and apparel. Another sister, Kelli Hanley Potts, a chef who runs Cleveland Field Kitchen, brought her food trailer Winnie to serve sandwiches. Three generations of Hanleys were present at the open house. 

“I know Mark is so happy watching us together as a family,” Marsha said. 

A full list of the Maple Tour stops and an interactive map can be found at mpneoh.com/maple-tour.

(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be reached at 724-201-1544 or rachel@farmanddairy.com.)

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Rachel is Farm and Dairy's editor and a graduate of Clarion University of Pennsylvania. She married a fourth-generation farmer and settled down in her hometown in Beaver County, where she co-manages the family farm raising beef cattle and sheep with her husband and in-laws. Before coming to Farm and Dairy, she worked at several daily and weekly newspapers throughout Western Pennsylvania covering everything from education and community news to police and courts. She can be reached at rachel@farmanddairy.com or 724-201-1544.

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