Clara Haizlett Published

Tree Syrup Producers Experiment With Techniques And Traditions Amidst A Warming Winter

A large white building, colonial style is seen in the center of the image. People are walking up on the porch and along the road in front of it. The words "Sugar Tree Country Store" are seen on the building.
Sugar Tree Country Store in Highland County, Virginia.
Clara Haizlett/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

This story originally aired in the June 4, 2023 episode of Inside Appalachia.

In late winter in Highland County, Virginia, maple syrup production is a visible part of the landscape. There are maple trees everywhere, adorned with metal buckets and laced with blue tubing. There’s a Maple Sugar Road and a Sugar Hollow and a Sugar Tree Country Store. There’s wood smoke hovering over the sugar houses and tree sap oozing from the taps, slowly making its way to becoming maple syrup. 

Highland County and its neighboring counties in West Virginia are some of the southernmost areas in the United States where you can make maple syrup. It’s become a deep-rooted tradition in these communities, but these days, producers are experimenting — both out of curiosity and out of necessity. 

Traditions With A Twist

Pat Lowry checks for sap in buckets.

Credit: Clara Haizlett/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Pat Lowry and his wife Valerie operate a sugar camp in Highland County called Back Creek Farms. Like many in the area, their family has been making maple syrup here for generations. 

“[Pat] has maple syrup in his veins,” Valerie Lowry said. “And he would make syrup 365 days a year if he could.” 

Each March, Back Creek Farms takes part in the Highland County Maple Festival, where different sugar camps demonstrate the process of making syrup. Throughout the county, people make and sell all things maple — from maple donuts to maple barbeque. 

The festival has been a staple for over sixty years in Highland County and the tradition of making maple syrup here started well before that. But over the years, practices have evolved, as people like Pat and Valerie Lowry apply new ideas and techniques to syrup production. 

“People kept asking me, ‘what do you have that’s new?’ Nobody had anything that was new! It was light syrup, medium syrup or dark syrup,” Pat Lowry said. 

So they started experimenting. They aged syrup in whiskey barrels and infused the pure maple syrup with natural flavors like elderberry. Valerie Lowry calls their approach “traditions with a twist.” 

At this year’s maple festival, Pat Lowry boiled down sap — or around here what they call “sugar water” — while Valerie handed out samples of syrup to visitors. 

“Now we are going to do chili pepper and ginger,” Valerie Lowry said, passing around the sampling spoons. “And you all are going to try hickory syrup. Hickory syrup is made from the bark of a hickory tree.” 

Valerie Lowry offers samples to visitors at the Highland County Maple Syrup Festival.

Credit: Clara Haizlett/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Tapping Black Walnut Trees, A New Frontier 

Gary Mongold of Petersburg, West Virginia has been going to the Highland County Maple festival since he was a kid. But this year Mongold didn’t make it to the festival. He was busy with his own operation — it’s his second year of making black walnut syrup. 

Mongold showed me around his sugar grove in his side-by-side. His property was full of walnuts situated along a steep hillside that opened out to a panorama view of Petersburg, Moorefield and Mount Storm. 

The process of making black walnut syrup borrows the basic principles of maple sugaring. You drill a hole, tap a tree, and out comes the sap. Plastic tubing funnels the sugar water down the hill into a collection tank. When the sap is boiled down, it transforms into a dark syrup. 

“I can’t describe it,” Mongold said. “It’s awesome. I think it’s different. It might be a little sweeter.” 

Mongold drizzles the syrup over a bowl of ice cream every night. 

”I just dearly love it. I better watch or I’ll eat my profits up!” Mongold said. 

Gary Mongold in front of his Sugar Shack in Petersburg, West Virginia

Credit: Clara Haizlett/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Black walnut syrup is an emerging industry and Mongold’s one of just a handful of producers in the region. He’s been working with Future Generations University out of Franklin, West Virginia to conduct research on the process. They’re trying to figure out the best techniques for production. 

Walnut trees don’t produce as much sap as maples, and the sap has less sugar. In short, it takes more to make less. And unlike maple, walnut sap contains naturally occurring pectin, which when it’s boiled down, becomes a thick goo — making the syrup difficult to filter. 

But Mongold is undeterred by these challenges, and he’s even found a creative use for the pectin. 

“About a year ago, I was listening to 89.5 PBS here in Petersburg,” Mongold said. “And it was talking about the Mayo Clinic working with pectin for arthritis and gout.” 

Mongold has had both. So ever since, he’s been taking a teaspoon of walnut pectin in his morning coffee. While pectin isn’t FDA approved for this purpose, Gary says it has relieved pain from his arthritis. 

Using the pectin — like making the syrup itself — is an experiment. And this season, there was another unpredictable variable at play. 

Adapting To A Warm Winter 

“It hasn’t been a very good season for sap to run,” Mongold said. “Mother Nature has not given us very good weather.” 

Last year, Mongold got about 17 gallons of syrup. This year he added even more taps but by mid-March, he’d only gotten five gallons. 

In order for sap to run, temperatures need to reach below freezing at night and above freezing during the day. 

“When we get this climate change like we’re having and get three 70 degree days in February, that just puts a stop to everything,” he said.  

Back in Highland County, Virginia, temperatures in February averaged 39.2 degrees Fahrenheit, making it the second warmest February on record, followed by 2017. 

“Honestly, in my 71 years, I’ve never seen a February like this,” Pat Lowry said, shaking his head. 

Even the more conventional maple syrup producers were forced to adapt — like Terri Puffenbarger and her husband Doug. There’s a long legacy of maple syrup production in the Puffenbarger lineage but they’re not interested in making different types of tree syrups or trying out infusions. 

“We don’t want to do that,” Terri Puffenbarger said. “We just want the real deal and that’s what we’re doing.” 

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This year, however, the warm February dried up maple production mid season. So when a cold snap hit in March, right around the maple festival, Doug Puffenbarger decided to try something different. He re-tapped his maple trees — drilling new holes in hopes of collecting fresh sap. 

“He’s never done that before,” Terri Puffenbarger said. “But with the warm temperatures in February, the climate is changing and that might be a new thing we’re gonna do.” 

Mongold ended up re-tapping his walnut trees, too. He got 5 more gallons of syrup, bringing his total for this year up to 10 gallons. And although it’s significantly less than last year, he’s optimistic.  

“It is kind of risky, I reckon,” he said. “But you know, I don’t look for every year to be bad. There’s gonna be a lot of good years.” 

Mongold’s already thinking about next year. Around this area, tree sap generally runs from the end of January through the end of March. But Mongold thinks that pattern might be changing. So this coming year, he plans to start tapping the first week of December. 

And in Highland County, there’s talk of switching the March maple festival to earlier in the season, too — when there’s a higher likelihood of cold nights, warm days and sugar water on the boil. 

Maple Sugar Road in Highland County, Virginia.

Credit Clara Haizlett/West Virginia Public Broadcasting


This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the Folklife Program of the West Virginia Humanities Council.

The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts and culture.