By Stephen Smoot
Three years ago, Future Generations University used grant funding from the West Virginia State Department of Agriculture to fund studies on tapping sap from trees other than maple. Since then, researchers have studied the economic and biological viability of syrups produced from trees besides maple.
With walnut syrup topping $500 a gallon at retail, many have gotten sweet on the potential for the product for the region. Future Generations University’s Kate Fotos explains that Pendleton County has untapped potential in walnut syrup, saying “we have three producers with about 500 walnut taps a piece.”
Although the economic development focus and scientific research into walnut syrup is new, the product is not. As Luke Taylor-Ide from the university describes, “I’ve been running into people who have been doing this for years, talking to residents of West Virginia who didn’t have maples, but have walnuts.”
Traditions of walnut syrup production in West Virginia reach back into the frontier period. Roane County has hosted a Black Walnut Festival since 1961 which features a wide range of walnut products, including syrup.
Researchers at the university, however, are looking to turn tradition into a profitable industry for the region. They are seeking to establish what level of sap harvesting is most safe and efficient with walnut trees. As Professor Mike Rechlin explained, they are seeking to “see how intensely you can tap a tree,” to determine the “sustainability of tapping.” Scientists on site measure growth rates, healing rates, and the sap in the wood.
The science will also establish the different processes optimally used to create both maple and walnut syrup, even though one can use the same equipment to produce both. Fotos explains that the project aims higher than research. She pointed out that walnut syrup has a “pretty high profit margin.”
The university’s intent, just as with its maple syrup project, lies in “enterprise diversification.” Taylor-Ide explained that the university wants to spur economic development through helping landowners make the most from their resources. “We want people to get more economic return off what they already have, their land.”
Maple syrup already brings money into the region. A Virginia Tech study claims that the oldest maple festival anywhere, held in Highland County, Virginia, earned $2.5 to $3 million for the area.
Although maple does sell well in the region, the university has higher hopes for walnut syrup and other related products. States such as Vermont, New York, and Ohio, as well as the province of Quebec in Canada, have robust maple syrup production in place already. Starting a walnut syrup industry from scratch could give West Virginia a competitive advantage in production. As Taylor-Ide suggests, “we don’t have to be number one in maple if this is the only place to get walnut.”
Evan Nelson of Marshall University’s Robert C. Byrd Institute said in a recent newsletter that “Canada and Vermont pretty much own the game when it comes to maple syrup. But in Vermont they have only three – count ‘em, three – walnut trees in the whole state. Heck, I have three walnut trees in my backyard.”
Nelson added, “At wholesale, maple syrup sells for about $40 a gallon, while walnut syrup, which is darker and richer, sells for $400 a gallon. That’s a huge opportunity for us if we can take advantage of it.”
Innovation is not confined to developing syrups from walnut. “We need to break the mold that says that sugar maple is somehow superior than others,” Rechlin said. While the northern states focus on sugar maple, the university has promoted production of maple syrup from red and black maples as well.
The ultimate goal in developing maple, walnut, and even sycamore syrups in Pendleton County lies in using the products to boost both agriculture and tourism. Farmers can earn more from their land while unique products draw visitors in to local businesses. Those working with these syrups can add value by transforming the syrups into other products, such as candies, liquors, and more.
The final leg of the stool for the university is public engagement. Staff regularly take the “sapmobile” into the community. This enclosed trailer contains all the equipment needed to produce moderate amounts of any syrup. Fotos describes it as “a great educational tool” because it demonstrates each step-in production.