By DOUG GRAVES
FULTON, Ohio — College basketball fans anxiously wait for March Madness. Similarly, producers of maple syrup are counting down the days to Ohio’s Maple Madness, a driving tour that takes thousands to sugar houses across the state to highlight Ohio’s maple heritage and industry.
As a prelude to this drive-it-yourself tour, the Ohio Maple Producers Assoc. (OMPA) hosted maple workshops last month in the Ohio counties of Morrow, Wayne, Holmes and Geauga.
“Maple syrup is immensely important to the Geauga County economy,” said Lynda Nemeth, director of Geauga County Tourism. “The maple sugaring season affords us an early jump on tourism, at a time when there’s pretty much nothing else going.”
Of the 12 maple syrup-producing states in the United States, Ohio consistently ranks fourth or fifth each year. And in Ohio, Geauga County is king, producing more syrup than any other county – a full 60 percent of all syrup produced in the state.
The reason is simple: Snow.
“Trees love moisture, they love rain and they love snow,” said Jen Freeman, president of the OMPA. “The more snow a location receives, the longer and better the maple syrup season.”
Workshops in the four counties showed producers how to improve the quality in maple products and how to successfully market those products. Experts in maple production talked about fungal contamination in maple syrup, canning protocols, visual displays and marketing, sugar-making, production statistics and more.
There were 86 in attendance for an Ohio Maple Days workshop in Fulton, in Morrow County. Jim and Eddie Lou Meimer of Pleiades Farms in Mount Gilead have produced 200 gallons so far this year on their 120 wooded acres. They began tapping in late January.
“We’re seeing more young farmers at the workshop this year and an increase in young people doing the tapping,” Eddie Lou said. “With this modern technology of high-pressure vacuum, people can get to areas they couldn’t get to before.”
Those wanting to catch some of the sap extraction in action can participate in the Ohio Maple Madness driving tour March 9-10 and March 16-17, sponsored by the OMPA.
“More and more, people like to know where their food is coming from,” said Freeman. “They are planting gardens, raising chickens and making syrup. Plus, what else are you going to do this time of year? It’s cruddy out.”
Tour participants will find a variety of timber-framed sugarhouses boiling down sap over wood-fired evaporators. There will also be plenty of concessions. At Richards Maple Products in Chardon, one can sample a “sap dog” – a hot dog cooked in maple syrup and topped with maple mustard.
The largest tapping system may be at Creekside Maple farm in Middlefield. This farm boasts a 600-tap system. At Sugarbush Creek Farm, also in Middlefield, visitors can hop a ride to the high-tech sugarhouse via horse-drawn wagon. The driving tour covers 16 counties, with 15 stops in Geauga County, six in Ashtabula County, three in Trumbull County, two in Portage and Knox and one each in Cuyahoga, Hancock, Lake, Licking, Logan, Mahoning, Miami, Preble, Seneca, Stark, Summit and Wayne.
For more information about the tour visit www.ohiomaple.org