This story was produced by the West Virginia Department of Agriculture as part of a collaboration among the agency, West Virginia Public Broadcasting, Inside Appalachia.
Iraq War veteran Jeremy Ray was looking for a hobby to help fill his time. What he found was a way to heal his wounds. Ray is the proud owner of Gauley River Maple, and this year is his first season as a maple producer. He heard about maple syrup through the West Virginia Department of Agriculture’s Veterans and Warriors to Agriculture Program, aimed at retraining veterans for careers in agriculture.
He took one maple syrup producer’s class, taught in part by a seasoned maple producer, named Brandon Daniels, and was hooked.
"It’s been a long time since I’ve been this excited about anything," Ray said.
You couldn’t find anyone more surprised about this venture than Ray himself. The 43-year-old grew up on this land but joined the Army National Guard right out of high school. He was looking for adventure, but then came the war in Iraq and he was deployed oversees.
"The day I was deployed was the day my oldest son was born," he said. "I was with him for 24 hours, and then I wasn’t back until he was 17 months old."
Ray doesn’t talk much about what happened in Iraq and the things he saw -- only that the experience changed him.
He worked for 14 years as a Nicholas County sheriff’s deputy, all the while suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. He managed the depression, flashbacks and anger. But in 2011, his boss called him in the office and told him to hand in his badge. When he went home to tell his wife, she too had had enough and walked out with their two sons.
"I lost everything I ever worked for on November 11, 2011 -- Veterans Day of all days," he said.
It took years of intense therapy and a lot of self-reflection, but he and his family reunited. Now on medical disability, Ray said he's looking for a new normal. That’s where maple syrup comes in.
"I’m a disabled vet. I really needed something to take up my time. I needed to get my mind busy on something, and I also wanted to find something where my kids could help and enjoy so we could get some more time together," he said.
His new workplace is far from the office atmosphere that triggered his anxieties. Outside with his maple trees, there’s a sense of peace.
"I’m by myself in the woods. It’s very relaxing," he said.
West Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture Kent Leonhardt, a veteran himself, said Ray’s story is not uncommon.
"When you think about what the unseen wounds of war do to our veterans, and what agriculture can do to help them heal, veterans with that affliction don’t want to be in an office," Leonhardt said. "They don’t want to have windows and doors and be around a lot of people. They want to be outdoors. That’s why maple syrup is ideal therapy."
Ray is a maple novice, but he said he sees growth potential in this industry. He said he hopes more people will consider becoming maple producers here in West Virginia. "Nobody around here knows about [maple farming] but everyone around here could do it if they wanted to," Ray said.
"In West Virginia, there’s untapped potential. If a crazy, disabled vet can do it, anybody can."
Including Ray’s six-year-old son Jackson, who tags along with his dad every chance he gets. Ray said one day, Gauley River Maple will belong to Jackson and his older brother, a legacy of love born from the wounds of war.
The West Virginia Maple Syrup Producers Association is expecting a better season this year than last. The goal is to top 10,000 gallons of syrup for sale. The average cost for a gallon of West Virginia maple is $60. But what you’re getting is pure, maple syrup, no additives or flavoring. Producers, like Ray, say it’s well worth the price.
This Saturday is "Mountain State Maple Day" in West Virginia. Sugar shacks and maple operations around the state will open their doors to the public. Fifteen locations across the state are included in an interactive map.