Highland Counties Southernmost Maple Products Is A Little Off The Beaten Path
Bolar, VA – If you’re looking for a place a little off the beaten path during Maple Festival, have some pancakes at the Bolar Ruritan Club and then visit Southernmost Maple Products on Big Valley Road off Route 220 South of Monterey. Owner Mike Puffenbarger looks forward to your company during the Festival on Saturday and at other times during the year.
“We appreciate all the fine folks coming out here” say Puffenbarger. “I’ll add that a lot of folks ask me, “How far out are you?” They’ll call; they can’t figure out how far Highland County is out of the main stream. You know, I was awakened in the morning, early, and was thinking about an answer to tell them and I told them in an international language that everybody understands I said, we’re about an hour and twenty minutes from the nearest Walmart!”
Even though he is in an extremely rural area, Puffenbarger strives to meet the needs of his customers while at the same time maintaining a healthy respect for the way Mother Nature handles her business. There is a lot of science and technology involved in the production of maple syrup, which escapes our notice when we enjoy a stack of pancakes. We find an example as Puffenbarger describes the yield he expects this year and why.
“We always expect the best year we’ve ever had and we go into the season looking at it like that” he says. “No matter what the conditions are, we still expect the best we’ve ever had and, you know, I believe it will probably be one of the better years for a lot of producers than they’ve had for a long, long time.”
“You know, it all depends on the weather. We’ve got to have freezing and thawing and, of course, the moisture content in the ground and the days of sunshine we had the previous summer all play into sap sweetness and the amount of it [sap]. The trees went dormant this year again in a drought condition. That makes it a little slower starting in the spring and, in my observation of it, it takes them [trees] a little bit to get going when they’ve been in a drought. Man, the rain we’ve had in the last little while and especially yesterday is kind of making up for the drought, I think.”
Early each spring morning, Puffenbarger considers many of those factors he mentioned when making a decision about whether to collect sap or wait for another day.
“Well, we depend a lot on long-term forecasts and especially our NOAA [National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration] seven-day forecast” he says. “You like to not tap until you see freezing and thawing conditions; too warm will cause bacteria growth in tap holes and cause them to, as the old timers said, just to dry up. An extended period of cold doesn’t hurt you as much, but you like to get out and get fresh tap holes when it looks like you’re going to have at least a week’s run.”
Once a decision is made to collect sap, Puffenbarger uses a crew to help with the task of gathering it from his nearly 1,000 trees. He uses a technique that has been abandoned by many modern producers and takes much more time.
“Buckets have been in maple syrup since the beginning of syrup production just about and we still hang almost a thousand buckets” says Puffenbarger. “All of our buckets now have lids so that if it rains or whatever, it keeps a lot of things out. But, it’s still pretty labor intensive and if we’ve got a big run it takes about a five-man crew four hours or more to make the gather every day. And, if they get a real terrific run, sometimes you do it twice a day.”
“Tree-to-tree, and some of those trees are 100 to 125 yards away from the closest we can get the gathering tanks so it’s a little bit of a walk. Some people don’t like to do it, but we were told by some Plain People, Old Order Amish long, long ago, if you want to make good syrup you’ve got to have some buckets involved.”
Puffenbarger says that a lot of people that visit his operation are curious about how maple syrup is made and that he is often asked how much sap he has to use to make a gallon of syrup.
“Our evaporator with piggy back unit and stuff on it can do about 450 gallons an hour when everything is functioning properly the barometric pressure, the atmosphere and different things and we figure 40 to 1 so I tell folks, you all do the math” he says. “I’m not good at it; I’m a syrup producer. Sometimes you can make syrup with 36 gallons to 1, sometimes it’s 50 or 60. It depends on the year, the trees, [and] the location.”
“Take the trees that we hang the buckets on, why I think one reason we like them so much, they’re scattered, they’re out by themselves, and generally some of those trees will be sweeter. We’ve even seen them up in 3% sweetness before and over. Your woods trees where they’re close and may be congregated a little closer, you know, they may be down to 1%.”
Syrup production for resale is regulated by the government so Puffenbarger takes no chances when deciding when to stop the boiling process, using technology in the form of a hydrometer to help. A hydrometer measures the specific gravity of the syrup.
“We use a hydrometer” says Puffenbarger. “The old school method we was taught, you hold a dipper up and when three drops run together, you’re right there at taking it off. The government says maple syrup to be legal to sell has to weigh at least 11 pound to the gallon you can make it a little bit thicker, not too much or it will sugar-crystal and folks get alarmed with the rock candy in the jug but 11 pound to the gallon and a hydrometer works well to do that. It’s pre-set at hot-test temperature or cold-test temperature and it’s pretty-well right on.”
Visitors to the Southernmost store will see a variety of maple and other products for sale. Puffenbarger enjoys planning for maple festival and tries to add something new when he can, especially when customers ask for it. Visitors may also be lucky enough to arrive when production is in full swing – something determined more by nature than by Mike Puffenbarger.
“Well, we do things we’ve done for the last several years” he says. “We’ve added an all-you-can-eat buffet from 5:00 to 8:00 on Saturdays. We’ll have food all day maple donuts, candies and syrups, and jellies and apple butter, things we produce all year long here. Some unique items in our store that’s not available at some of the bigger stores Amish-made furniture that’s different and just a variety of things. Everything’s made with maple.”
“We don’t have set times; we start about 9:00 in the mornings and open the doors for folks and we’ll gather a few up, run through the process from start to finish they can look at some of the trees around here with the buckets on and show them the whole process of what we’re doing even the candy making that we do commercially… walk them through it, see the products in our store, being able to take some home. We’ve got folks that come every year just to spend a day, to help out or say let me be a part of what’s going on.”
Even with all the work required to produce maple syrup, Puffenbarger has been in the business a long time and is likely to remain in it, although he can’t exactly explain why when asked. He says that the family will be well prepared to take on the work of producing quality maple syrup and other products when he is no longer able to. He also wanted to talk about his five man crew.
“It’s hard to explain” he says. “It’s something that I don’t think everybody would want to do or want to do on a regular basis. Syrup producers are few and far Everybody that’s from this area made maple syrup or been a part of maple syrup and it’s been a way of life. We’ve come to enjoy it, and love it, and it hasn’t ceased yet.”
“One thing to clear up about the five man crew it’s not all men. I’ve been blessed with three daughters and two granddaughters and they’re a big part of this.”
Southernmost Maple Products is open this Saturday and is located off Route 220, in Bolar, mid-way between Warm Springs and Monterey. Visit their website www.southernmostmaple.com for more information about their operation, their products, and some interesting facts about maple syrup production.