The Endless Mountains region of Pennsylvania is home to plenty of sugar maple trees and quite a few sugar makers. The Epler family – Bob and Judy Epler, along with son Scott and daughter-in-law Becky, plus granddaughters Kaitlyn, Kristie and Chelsea – works together to tap trees, gather and boil sap, and bottle, label, market and sell their syrup. Daughter Penny Epler-Carl even commutes from Albany on weekends during sugaring season. With 8,000 taps spread across 200 acres of sugar bush on the family’s 500-acre farm, sugaring season requires an all-hands-on-deck approach, including several employees to assist with the tapping and sap collection.
“We started doing this to help supplement our dairy farm,” Judy Epler said. The dairy farm is no longer in operation, but the Eplers raise beef cattle, grow hay and grain, and have been increasing their sap production and improving equipment for the past two decades.
Operations and equipment
The family keeps well-maintained pathways and roadways through the sugar bush and monitors operations regularly using all-terrain vehicles. These also provide easy access to maintain the sugar bush throughout the year. Deer are the biggest problem, becoming tangled in vacuum tubing lines. However, squirrels and chipmunks are just as detrimental, chewing through the lines, Epler noted. To keep damage to a minimum, tubing is rolled up and stored between sugaring seasons.
While it may cause some complications, the vacuum tubing is a necessity for the operation.
“It takes 9 pounds of pressure to pull the sap out,” Epler said. The vacuum tubing reduces the amount of manpower required to collect the accumulated sap, as well as the time it takes the sap to run from the tree.
Trees are typically tapped in February in their neck of the woods. However, with both north and south-facing slopes on their land, the sap doesn’t all flow at the same time. The south slopes warm up more quickly, since they are exposed to the sun throughout the day.
An army truck is used to gather sap from the eight collection stations set up in the sugar bush. The truck is equipped with a 1,800-gallon tank. At the sugarhouse, sap is held in a storage tank with a 4,000-gallon capacity, where it awaits boiling.
Epler Farms Maple Syrup originally used a wood-fired brick furnace. Today, the operation uses an oil-fired furnace. They utilize reverse osmosis, which “shakes the excess water out and boils [the sap] down quicker,” Epler explained. Syrup is then stored in stainless steel drums and reboiled and bottled as needed throughout the year, keeping everything as fresh as possible.
“My job is filling orders and rebottling from the 40-gallon stainless steel drums in which we store the finished syrup for future sale,” Epler said.
Epler’s son Scott is the boil master. She credits his careful monitoring of the processes and equipment gauges every step of the way for the resulting high-quality syrup. They process the sap in bulk, being careful to avoid overboiling the sap, which she feels can be a common issue in syrup processing. The reverse osmosis process, which makes the boiling “quicker and faster,” results in a better-tasting product, Epler said, so “we don’t have to boil and boil.”
The sugarhouse is inspected annually by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, including a water test. The Eplers have to carry liability insurance for their products, and the operation is treated just like a commercial kitchen.
“We have a license; we are inspected yearly, just like food service or restaurants,” Epler said. “The cleanliness is above everything else.” The family takes special care to maintain a high sanitation standard throughout their operation.
The sugarhouse is an insulated concrete and metal building. They offer direct retail sales of an array of maple products, including maple cream, maple candies and maple sundae topping. Syrup is bottled in plastic jugs and a variety of keepsake glass bottles. They offer custom-made gift baskets, featuring an assortment of these items to accompany the main feature: pure Epler Farms Maple Syrup.
The farm produces enough syrup to sell wholesale in both 5-gallon jugs and bulk sale drums, and they offer bulk delivery. One longtime customer is an independent pancake house in Massachusetts. This establishment serves over 700 breakfasts each weekend, all accompanied by Epler Farms Maple Syrup. The restaurant purchases a dozen 40-gallon barrels each year. The farm gets a lot of promotion out of this relationship, as the restaurant shares the syrup’s origins. Other large customers include grocery stores and several ice cream parlors, many in the Philadelphia area.
“We’re not quite large enough to sell to chains,” Epler noted. In order to meet that demand, they’d have to purchase syrup from others.
The family only sells their own product, a fact that is a source of pride. Many larger producers buy syrup from others, but customers don’t always realize this, Epler said. The Eplers do produce enough syrup to sell a portion to a broker and still supply all of their retail and wholesale customers. When selling on this commodity market, Epler said that Canada usually sets the price.
Epler estimates that 25 percent of the farm’s maple syrup sales are wholesale. The remaining retail sales include sales from their sugarhouse and any off-farm events, as well as from their Local Harvest (http://www.localharvest.org) listing. However, even with the Internet, their biggest form of advertising remains word-of-mouth.
Like many producers, the Eplers participate in fairs and festivals, such as the Endless Mountains Fall Festival each October. They also welcome visitors to their sugarhouse, and with advance notice they can provide tours.
While Pennsylvania may not be a large producer of maple syrup, Epler Farms Maple Syrup is proud to contribute to Pennsylvania’s sugaring heritage. The Eplers want customers to realize that there is a difference between generic, mass-marketed “pancake syrup,” made from corn syrup and flavoring, and pure maple syrup, harvested from the trees. Their motto, “An Old Time Taste, An Old Time Tradition,” reflects the purity and honest labor that makes maple sap into maple syrup.
Maple in the Endless Mountains
While the Endless Mountains region of Pennsylvania isn’t the first place associated with maple sugaring, the region is working to promote its sugaring history and holds a maple festival each spring. The Endless Mountains Maple Festival, held in Troy, Pa., every April, features a pancake breakfast, pancake eating contest, maple products contest, tractor pulls, mechanical bull rides, car shows and a farm museum. The festival, ongoing since 1981, offers producers a chance to sell their syrup and maple products, as well as educate the public with maple sugaring demonstrations. The Endless Mountains Maple Syrup Producers Association also holds open house tours every March.
Pennsylvania producers had an output of 134,000 gallons of maple syrup from 583,000 taps in 2013. This represents about 4 percent of U.S. maple syrup production, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service (http://1.usa.gov/NwyaJV).