WELLSBURG, W.Va. — A family who started out making maple syrup in the family kitchen 15 years ago is now known across North America as the top maple sugar producer in the world.
The Fred Hervey family decided to try making maple syrup 15 years ago on their 40-acre farm in Brooke County, West Virginia. They collected the sap and decided they would try and make it in their kitchen. After a messy cleanup of Cathy Hervey’s kitchen, the family decided that may not be the way to go. So they got a turkey cooker and started boiling in it outside.
It wasn’t until three years ago, that the family invested in their first official evaporator. By then the family was hooked.
In 2012, Fred and Cathy’s daughter Britney, and her husband, Charlie Farris, started a produce farm and were operating at several farmers markets. Fred, who got the syrup enterprise started, got the idea in 2013 that maybe by selling some of the syrup and byproducts, they could fund their hobby.
So the Farrises and the Herveys began selling maple cotton candy, sugar and syrup at fairs and festivals in West Virginia.
Jump ahead to 2015, and the family found out that the North American Maple Syrup Council was holding an international conference in Somerset, Pennsylvania.
The family’s goal was to get feedback on how to improve their products. They never expected what would come next. The last night of the conference, the family decided to pack up and head home before the conference banquet. They asked a friend to pick up their “report card,” which the judges give to those who submitted judging samples.
The Hervey family got a big surprise from their friend.
They had won first place for their maple sugar and scored a 100 percent (one of the top seven) for their maple syrup in the North American Maple Syrup Council Maple Syrup and Confections Contest. The syrup is tested for color and taste among other factors. The sugar is tested for flavor and texture, and it must pass a creep test — it must fall like the sides of a pyramid.
“We were so shocked by it,” said Britney, adding they had never even entered a contest before.
“The win opened a lot of doors for us. It’s a win for all West Virginia producers,” said Britney.
The West Virginia Maple Syrup Producer Association just formed in 2015 and the goal is to get all producers in the state working together.
“After all, we have more maple trees than Vermont, so we should be working together,” said Britney.
Now, it’s 2016 and the family has had a busy couple of months: The family built their dream sugar shack, complete with a commercial kitchen and room for a retail market.
The all-wood sugar shack was built with mortise and pinion construction, using 270 wooden pins in the 40-by-40-foot building. The construction includes precise angled cuts into the lumber where other pieces of wood and pins are inserted into the frame and beams. The building was constructed in five weeks by Emanuel Miller, of Fredericksburg, Ohio, who lived with Britney and Charlie during the building period, which started in January. He spent more than 15 hours designing the building prior to construction.
He cut out the parts to the building in the garage and then moved them to the site and put the building together like a puzzle. The building includes handmade windows and doors.
In addition to the sugar shack, the building will also be a commercial kitchen for Britney’s produce products. The building, when complete, will have a stainless steel kitchen and walls that can be easily sanitized to pass health department codes.
The family laughs about how the whole project came together. Britney decided her business was built up enough that she needed a high tunnel to grow her tomatoes. She had been traveling to Fredericksburg for supplies for her produce farm. That is where she met Andy and Paul Miller. They helped her construct her high tunnel last fall.
After Britney and her father got to know the Millers well, they asked them about the pin and beam construction, and as luck would have it, their brother Emanuel is known for his work.
The family now has 200 taps on a pipeline built on a group of trees on property her aunt and uncle own, and they also have 400 taps with bags on trees that belong to the family and friends.
Britney said that she has been impressed with the pipeline system. It includes a vacuum system and the pipeline runs into a central line where the sap is collected and then hauled to the sugar shack. In the basement of the sugar shack is a retired milk bulk tank in a 40 degree room that stores the sap water until it is boiled.
The family is trying to stay as old-fashioned as possible when it comes to production, and continues to use wool filters to strain the syrup and they don’t use reverse osmosis in their process.
With their current evaporator set up with the 2-by-6-foot pan, they can produce 20 gallons of syrup in an hour. It takes 50 gallons of sap water to make 1 gallon of syrup. The sugar shack also contains a water jacket canner. It helps with the process of filling and sealing jars, and keeps the syrup at 180 degrees, in the safe range for sanitary bottling. Hot water surrounds the syrup, which helps it keep flowing through the valve.
Britney said she is able to sell more maple sugar, and related products, than syrup. This means extra steps in her product line. The maple syrup is heated to a higher temperature and it is constantly stirred until the syrup turns into a naturally granulated sugar. She said 2 gallons of syrup produces between 12-16 pounds of sugar.
Although the family missed the first run of the season due to construction of the sugar shack, they have made up for it and have produced syrup during the last two runs.
The family tapped the trees Feb. 15 and started collecting sap Feb. 22 this year.
“We may not make the most syrup, but we concentrate on the quality,” said Fred.
The family tries to produce Amber Rich grade syrup, which is in the middle of the grading system and is what they sell most in their market. Cathy said the family feels blessed to be doing so well with the maple syrup products, but knows it isn’t possible without the help of their family friend, Gary Rush, who helps out with the boiling when the others are working.
The family will be holding an open house in their sugar shack from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. March 19, as part of the Mountain State Maple Days, which is the state’s first maple event. The public is welcome.
Britney and her husband, Charlie, both have off-the-farm jobs, but they agree they are committed to quality and bringing back homesteading. In addition to selling the maple syrup products, she plans to sell sorghum, vegetables and farm-raised chickens in her market once the sugar season ends.