SUGAR GROVE - A couple in Pendleton County have decided to take on a tasty new entrepreneurial endeavor they anticipate will satisfy the sweet tooth of many people in their community.
Ricky Harper and Samantha "Sam" Vitale Harper, two science teachers at Pendleton County High School, have established Cool Hollow Maple Farm LLC, a small business located near Sugar Grove in Pendleton County that specializes in the production of maple syrup and maple products, such as maple-glazed nuts.
Ricky Harper, a native of Pendleton County, said the maple syrup trade was something of a family business between the 1930s and the early 1950s.
Ricky Harper works with some of the maple syrup equipment at Cool Hollow Maple Farm. (Submitted photo)
Maple syrup produced on the Harper family farm in those days was used as a sweetener or bartered in trade for food items, such as flour. After maple syrup production ceased, the land was strictly utilized as a cattle farm, until prolonged drought forced the Harper family to sell all of their livestock.
Local syrup producers encouraged the Harpers to once again tap their trees, but it wasn't until Ricky and Sam acquired ownership of the family property in 2013 that the idea was taken seriously.
"We didn't really know the modern way that maple syrup was being made," Sam Harper said. "So we sought out some help."
In April 2013, Ricky and Sam journeyed to Vermont to learn about the production of maple syrup at Leader Evaporator's annual open-house event. According to the University of Vermont Library and Agricultural Center's website, Vermont controls approximately 35 percent of all U.S. maple syrup production or distribution, or roughly 7 percent of the world's maple supply.
It was there that they met Henry Brenneman of Brenneman's Maple. Henry was the person from whom the Harpers would eventually purchase their equipment. While in Vermont, the Harpers also met Bruce Folks, a maple syrup producer in nearby Highland County, Va. Folks has served as a mentor for the Harpers as they ventured into the unknown world of making maple syrup.
The Harpers came back with their new-found knowledge, bought all of the equipment they needed brand-new and began the maple syrup-making process, which begins by gathering sap from the maple trees through taps. A vacuum system pulls sap into a reverse osmosis machine that separates the water from sap. This process takes approximately four hours to complete. The sap is put into an evaporator, where it remains for a couple of hours until it gets the consistency of syrup.
Sam Harper said maple syrup season is usually the six weeks between the end of January until early March, but the couple got a little bit of a late start this year harvesting sap and manufacturing syrup.
"The transformation process is amazing," Sam Harper said. "It's been an exciting journey for us. I'm happy to be doing it."
Once the installation of the necessary equipment was finalized, an endeavor that cost nearly $100,000, Ricky and Sam produced their first syrup on Feb. 21. Nearly 4,000 taps on the Harper's farm and the neighboring farm owned by Otis "Junior" Harper provide the sap for Cool Hollow Maple Farm.
The Harpers have produced approximately 1,000 gallons of sweet organic maple syrup with the help of their family and friends, so far this season and plan to finish off the season with about 1,500 gallons total. The Harpers plan to distribute their product through local businesses and at local events like fairs and
"We've been trying to spread the word," said Ricky Harper. "We've gotten great feedback. People are saying our brand of syrup is thicker and sweeter than others they've tried. Just on word of mouth alone we've been able to reach people as far as 100 miles away."
The Harpers say their syrup is also available on location at the Cool Hollow Maple Farm sugar house or for shipping through the mail. For more information on Cool Hollow Maple Farm's maple syrup or to set up a visit to their sugar house, contact Ricky or Sam Harper at 304-358-7220 or 304-218-1175.