Maple Syrup Production, Just One of the Many Hands-On Experiences for Students at WVU Potomac State College


WVU Potomac State College Students (l-r) Lainey Smith, an agriculture education major from Red House, W.Va.; Madison Jackson, a SAGE major from Greenbrier County, W.Va.; and Kyle Cessna, a SAGE major from Cumberland, Md., along with SAGE Program Director Corey Armstrong, check out the sugar maple sap as it cooks to see if it’s turning to syrup.  

Agriculture students on the campus of West Virginia University Potomac State College (PSC) have been involved in a number of hands-on educational experiences this spring, with the most recent being a maple syrup production project on the Gustafson Farm.

Maple trees are usually ready to tap in February or early March, depending on the weather.  While the nights are still freezing, and as the days start to warm, the sap inside the tree begins to rise, creating pressure and causing the sap to flow.

Though the College has long-owned the land where the Sugar Maples grow, this is the first time the trees have been tapped.  “With the creation of a degree in Sustainable Agriculture Entrepreneurship, or SAGE, the College recognizes the opportunities available to students who are exploring the field of agriculture.  This, along with a strong belief in experiential education, has encouraged our faculty to seek out tactile learning experiences for the benefit of our students,” said PSC President Jennifer Orlikoff.

And this is exactly how a partnership with Ed and Karen Hartman, owners of the Indian Water Maple Company in New Creek, W.Va., began.  According to Corey Armstrong, who serves as the program director for SAGE, “After Ed and Karen reached out to me wanting to know how they could assist students in the SAGE program, they responded by donating buckets, taps, an evaporator, and their time to help with the production process.  It’s just been amazing for the students to work with them and to get to learn from their decades of experience.”

Around mid-February, the Hartman’s demonstrated the process of drilling holes in the trees, placing the taps and collecting the sap.  Madison Jackson, a SAGE major from Greenbrier County, W.Va.; displayed her excitement while discussing the process.  “We tapped 24 trees, then waited as the sap started draining into the buckets.  Once we finally collected enough sap, we built a fire under the evaporator so it could cook down to syrup.  This has been really exciting; I never thought I’d be doing something like this in college!”

It took about two weeks to gather more than 60 gallons of sap.  And for those who aren’t aware, it takes approximately 43 gallons of sap to make just one gallon of syrup.  Students will probably yield between one and five gallons of syrup this year.

“Other benefits to this evolving partnership, includes students gaining hands-on experience from the Hartman’s by assisting them at their commercially-run maple sugar camp.  They get a chance to learn how this growing agricultural trend can be profitable, and how to make the best use of our resources,” said Armstrong.

It’s interesting to note that maple syrup is a product that comes only from North America, with most of the Sugar Maple trees growing in the Northeastern section of the United States.  The reason for this is quite simple, this area has the specific climate needed to produce the sap.  Not only is the Sugar Maple the state tree of West Virginia, it grows in all 55 counties in the state as well.  To narrow it down even further, of the 800 plus acres of land owned by the College, much of it is pasture and field, but approximately 150 acres are timber which includes several thousand Sugar Maple trees. 

The amount of maple syrup harvested in the U.S. in 2017 totaled 4.27 million gallons, of which 9,000 gallons were harvested in West Virginia, an increase for the state of 33 percent from 2016.  According to West Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture Kent Leonhardt, “West Virginia’s maple syrup industry is booming!  We’ve gone from just a few producers, to dozens in the past decade.”

“West Virginia has an abundance of Sugar Maple trees and we are able to offer a really unique experience to our students on the farm.  Hands-on learning also provides students with the opportunity to work together and to solve problems as they arise. In most cases, to have a sustainable farming enterprise, you should have some diversity of products to meet demand in the market, and this project will no doubt diversify the skill-set of our students,” added Armstrong.

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