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UK to hold Kentucky Maple Day on Feb. 1; local syrup product dates back to region’s first settlers


By Carol Lea Spence
University of Kentucky

There’s something sweet bubbling up in the forests of Kentucky: maple syrup production.

Through the first Kentucky Maple Day on Feb. 1, University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension and the Kentucky Maple Syrup Association want to introduce folks to local maple syrup, with a history that goes back to the region’s first settlers.

“We have a long history of maple syrup production in Kentucky prior to World War II,” said Shad Baker, agricultural and natural resources extension agent in Letcher County. “It was mostly because of the lack of available sugar. Especially in the mountainous, timbered part of the state, there were a lot of folks who produced their own maple syrup.”

When rationing ended after the war, people started shifting to refined sugar, and the old ways died back.

“People kind of forgot this was something their grandparents regularly did,” he said.

Kentucky maple syrup. (Photo by Stephen Patton)

To remind folks of that sweet history and also to introduce others to the cottage industry, about 20 Kentucky maple syrup producers will open their farms and sugarhouses to visitors. Activities will vary at each location, but Seth Long, president of the Kentucky Maple Syrup Association, said the day will be an excellent opportunity for families and interested future producers to tour a local maple syrup operation and purchase syrup and other maple-related products.

“The process and history are fascinating, because it was not a unique experience,” Long said. “Everyone was doing it up and down these creeks and hollows in the mountains at one time, but they were doing it using old-fashioned technology.

“Collecting the sap with pails and buckets and boiling it in open cast-iron pots out in the front yard. One of the things that’s exciting to me is all the technology that we have today to make maple syrup into an economic driver that can really help Kentuckians with their agricultural pursuits.”

Though sugar maple is the tree people traditionally think of as a source for the syrup, red maple is a choice tree, as well. According to Long, there is no difference in the taste or the quality. Red maple tends to be a little lower in sugar content than sugar maple, but when the syrup is in the bottle, that doesn’t matter. Long taps about 40 percent red maple and 60 percent sugar maple on his property. Fortunately, red maple is prolific in Kentucky.

“The statistics say we have more red maple that are 1 inch or greater in diameter than any other species in the state,” said Billy Thomas, extension forester with the University of Kentucky Department of Forestry and Natural Resources.

Thomas encourages landowners to think of their woods as an asset.

“It all comes down to the landowner’s objectives and what they want to accomplish. Certainly, take advantage of the trees that you have on your property as a resource,” he said. “I’m sure there are a lot of folks out there who have a lot of maple on their property.”

People attending Kentucky Maple Day have the opportunity to visit small-scale producers who tap their trees using the traditional bucket method and producers who work on a larger scale using gravity-fed tubing systems, reverse osmosis and commercial evaporators to boil the sap down to its essential sugar.

Chaning Richardson at Forgotten Foods Farm in Carter County fills the evaporator with maple sap. (Photo by Stephen Patton)

“Anybody can do this,” said Jeremy Williams, agriculture and natural resources extension agent in Harlan County. “It’s one of the rare things you can do whether you have a background in agriculture or not.”

The Letcher County Extension office is holding a pancake breakfast, with locally produced maple candy and nuts for sale, and tours of its sugar bush, which is the term for the woods in which maples predominate.

Long’s Southdown Farm, also in Letcher County, will offer guided tours and pastries for purchase from their on-site bakery.

Participating farms extend from Northern Kentucky, near Cincinnati, west to Logan and Ohio counties, south to Green, Metcalfe, Laurel and Clay counties and east in Carter, Lawrence, Johnson, Pike, Floyd, Letcher and Harlan counties. For more information, including event times and a map of all participating farms, go to ky-maplesyrup.ca.uky.edu.

The Kentucky Maple Syrup Association developed from the Kentucky-Virginia Maple School offered by UK Cooperative Extension in 2016. UK Cooperative Extension is part of the UK College of Agriculture, Food and Environment.

With its land-grant partner, Kentucky State University, the UK Cooperative Extension Service brings the university to the people in their local communities, addressing issues of importance to all Kentuckians.

Carol Lea Spence writes for the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment


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