By Stephen Smoot
“Any time you see a sugar shack, it grows the local economy.”
So says Kent Leonhardt, West Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture, as he describes the impact of Mountain State Maple Days and rising production in the region and around the state. He added that during Maple Days, events attract locals and tourists alike, saying “some people come from quite a ways away to buy the local syrup.”
“By promoting this where people gather and learn, then making the product, this boosts the local economy,” Leonhardt explained.
Lindsay Kazarick, from Future Generations University near Franklin, explained how past Mountain State Maple Days events have helped the county’s goals of boosting its main industries of agriculture and tourism. She said that Maple Days helped some area businesses benefit from higher traffic than even during the Treasure Mountain Festival. Rising demand for authentic maple syrup for flavoring, cooking, and even distilling could help landowners and small businesses to earn good profits year after year without harming trees in the process.
“A West Virginia natural resource like maple,” she says, “could do something like that for Pendleton County.”
Mountain State Maple Days starts in Pendleton County at 10 a.m. on Feb. 18 at the historic McCoy’s Mill on Thorn Creek Road. Future Generations will be on hand to perform demonstrations, hand out educational materials, and describe efforts to expand syrup production to walnut and sycamore as well.
“We’re still doing a lot of research at McCoy’s Mill,” Kazarick shared, then added, “Sycamore trees can be tapped for syrup and made there.” Future Generations research on walnut and sycamore focuses on tapping the tree for as much sap as possible without damaging the tree significantly. They share research with landowners interested in maximizing profits from their property.
Across the state, Mountain State Maple Days runs from Feb. 18 through March 18. Alongside McCoy’s Mill, regional participating producers include Mountain Cajun Getaways in Circleville, Jack Mountain Maple near Moatstown, Cool Hollow Maple near Sugar Grove, Dry Run Spirits Distillery south of Franklin, Spruce Knob Maple near Job, and M&S Maple near Upper Tract. Bowers Maple Farm will not directly participate, but is open by appointment for tours and purchases.
Local businesses also support the event by selling authentic maple products made throughout the county and region all year long or during maple days. These include Brandywine General Store, Long Mountain General Store, Korner Cafe, Yokum’s, T&K Markets, and more.
Living off the land in every way possible is one of the Mountain State’s oldest traditions. Leonhardt describes that “in the early days, this was the sweetener of the homesteads of West Virginia. Cane sugar was very expensive. This is what people used.”
“The woods were not necessarily a disadvantage to mountain farmers, a point usually lost on residents of developed counties,” wrote Ronald Lewis, West Virginia University emeritus professor of state history in Transforming the Appalachian Countryside. He added that early settlers in places like Pendleton County developed “the roots of a highly adaptive agricultural system that depends on the forests.”
As late as the 1870s, women on regional farms still produced “for home consumption and traffic, large quantities of butter, eggs, chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys, guineas, feathers, beeswax, honey, ginseng, maple sugar, molasses . . . ,” as a period commentator quoted in John Alexander Williams’ Appalachia described. Many regional farms and homesteads still work to provide as much as possible for the family from the land while selling the excess, even as many of those traditions have disappeared elsewhere.
Leonhardt suggests that communities may need to revisit the traditions of local resilience, saying that in a time of supply chain disruption and food shortages, agricultural producers and consumers should try to “get back to basics, shortening the distances between where food is produced and where it’s consumed.”
Mountain State Maple Days and those who produce for and support it are one step toward getting back to more reliable production and going forward to economic growth.