AUBURN, Ohio – “A love of labor” is how Bill Belew of Messenger Century Farm in Auburn, Ohio, describes the maple syrup industry.
Belew with his wife, Dee, and their son, Bill, have run the retail maple syrup operation for about eight years. They purchased the farm from the Louis Messenger family in 1992. The Messenger family had produced syrup since the early 1800s.
“It was Louis’ dream for this farm to go on, and as long as we’re here, this will always be the Messenger farm. We’re on Messenger Road, and it will be like a living memorial to them,” said Dee. “I think Bill has the love for the business that Louis had. Each day he wakes up, he says how beautiful the woods are and how lucky we are to be the caretakers of those woods.”
Bill retired from Ameritech in 1992 to farm full-time. “Young” Bill, who also works as an electrician, and his wife, Amy, live on the farm, and Dee and Bill’s daughter Kelly has also made plans to build a house on the farm.
Meet Bob and Dick.
They run about half of their 1,000 taps with tubing and the other half with buckets. Bill uses his work horses, Bob and Dick, to collect the syrup. He said he tried using a tractor for about two years, but the woods were often too muddy and he found the horses to be easier to work in those conditions.
The Belews depend on many volunteers during the season. Each year area Boy Scout troops come to the farm to help collect the syrup.
Bill believes the popularity of syrup spans the globe, and Belew syrup has traveled as far as New Zealand.
“Maple syrup is such a tradition in Ohio,” said Belew. “It’s hard to go anywhere and not find it. It’s just a popular item.”
The family has been told their sugarhouse may be the oldest in Geauga County. The Belews hope to restore and preserve it as best as they can. The base the modern evaporator sits on dates back to the 1800s.
“I think nostalgia is a big draw to our farm. Visitors like to see the old sugarhouse and the horses out in the woods,” said Bill. “They feel like they step back in time a bit, and I think they enjoy that.”
Bill said at one time there were about 15 sugarbushes on Messenger Road. Today, the Belews stand alone. He thinks he will soon have the only sugarbush in Auburn.
Bill said the weather is always the biggest challenge for the syrup industry, and prices aren’t any, if at all, better than any other farming industry.
“My son and I figured out last year that after working about 48 hours straight, we could have gotten a job at McDonald’s and made a better profit,” said Bill. “No matter what the season is like, you still have to do the same preparation and clean up.
“I think this season is going to be good though, so this year, the preparation and clean-up will be worth it.”
They sell their syrup direct to the customers from the farm, and supplies run out about Christmas time. Bill said the customer base for the maple syrup has mostly come from his contacts through the horse industry. In 1993, the Belews built a horse barn for boarding and breeding.
“The horse business has been a great way for people to hear about our syrup operation. Word of mouth is always the best advertisement,” said Bill.
Preserving the farm.
Bill and Dee are passionate about preserving their 70 acres. They feel they are in prime area for development, and they are looking into farmland preservation options.
“We’re glad our children are going to be a part of this, and we have to protect it for them,” said Dee. “We live to share this farm with everyone, and we feel very fortunate to be here.”
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