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OSU is tapping into Ohio’s sweetest crop: maple syrup

Two jars of maple syrup sit aside one another surrounded by green leaves. Their label reads Ohio State Maple Syrup.
Ohio State University Extension
Ohio State has been making maple syrup for years. They hope it brings more people to the sustainable crop.

On a cold January morning, Ohio State University assistant professor Gabriel Karns is outside with a small hammer and a drill. He scans the bark of a maple tree for the perfect spot.

“One of the things we look for is an area on the tree where the bark doesn't show much evidence of an old knot,” Karns said, delicately brushing moss off a towering maple.

Each winter, Karns works with student interns and alumni to tap more than 1,200 trees in a 19-acre sugarbush, a grouping of maples, tucked away behind OSU Mansfield’s campus.

“It's a smooth and continuous in and out motion,” Karns said, drilling into the trunk. A clear stream begins to flow from the tree. “Look at that. Already running.”

A gloved hand catches a drop of sap on its finger. The sap flows from a white spout on a mossy maple tree.
Kendall Crawford
Ohio Newsroom
Visiting assistant professor Gabriel Karns catches a drop maple sap on his finger. He teaches students on OSU's Mansfield campus how to properly tap into maple trees.

Next, each tree is decorated with a spout and a bright blue tube, which carries the sap running from their trunks to a small shed. The sap will be boiled down and sold as Ohio State University’s official maple syrup.

Maple syrup is a $5 million industry in Ohio. The Ohio Maple Producers Association estimates more than a thousand producers across the state collect maple trees’ sap and turn it into syrup, candy, even maple-flavored ice cream. Ohio State University wants to see that number grow. Its Mansfield campus is now a training ground to convince the next generation to be sweet on the practice.

Untapped potential

The project started in 2019, after some students noticed a grouping of maples in these woods.

Kathy Smith, OSU Extension’s director of forestry, said they realized the area had untapped potential: the sugarbush could be used to get students and woodland owners alike interested in making maple syrup.

“I want us to grow the industry,” Smith said. “A lot of our industries are having that issue – as it starts to age, we don't necessarily bring new faces in. I'm hoping that we can do that here.”

So, they host workshops in the woods, teaching potential producers how to install a tap and the best methods for boiling and bottling. And all of the university's syrup sales go right back into conducting research. They’ve studied the saturation of sap in different maple species and are looking at how wildlife can impact sugarbushes.

A man in a tan jacket, an orange scarf and a dark beanie stands in the middle of the woods. Behind him, blue tubes connect the maple trees.
Kendall Crawford
Ohio Newsroom
Karns wants to focus on getting students interested in sustainable food sources.

These findings can benefit maple-syrup makers, like Jen Freeman, president of the Ohio Maple Producers Association and owner of Richard’s Maple Products in Chardon. Freeman said the campus’ research is part of a proud tradition of Ohio innovation in the field.

“Ohio pioneered a lot of the syrup making equipment that is used today. The companies have now moved on to Canada, Vermont and such, but a lot of them started right here in Ohio,” Freeman said.

A long tradition of tapping

Many species of maple are native to Ohio and so is the tradition of tapping them. Native American tribes, like the Shawnee and the Delaware, taught European settlers how to find the sweetness in the sap. In the mid-1800s, the state became the country’s top producer.

During the Civil War, antislavery activists in the state boycotted cane sugar produced by slaves in the South and used maple sugar instead, according to Ohio History Connection.

A black and white photo depicts maple trees sprouting from a snow covered ground. On each side of their trunks, buckets are attached to collect maple.
Ohio History Connection
In the 1930s and 40s, Ohio maple syrup was harvested by letting sap run into buckets.

While Freeman said the amount of maple producers in Ohio has grown in recent years, the state has long lost its top spot to Vermont. Still, around 100,000 gallons of syrup flow out of Ohio’s trees each year.

“We've got an enormous amount of small producers, folks that just make enough for their family … or maybe have a home store there on their farm,” she said.

Sweet rewards 

Karns, the OSU professor, said tapping is a way to reignite a relationship with what’s in our backyards. Today, he said, it’s all too easy to forget where our food comes from.

“It gives a landowner tangible value to appreciate and keep those trees growing and healthy and … pretty sweet when it lands on pancakes on your plate, right?” Karns said. “So when you can taste the end product of approaching a natural resource, a tree, in a sustainable manner, that is really something to, something to behold.”

That’s why next spring, OSU will launch a whole class dedicated to giving students hands-on experience making maple syrup. Karns said it will focus on exposing students to a sustainable practice they can practice locally.

Karns hopes, after they graduate, at least a few of them will stick with it.

Kendall Crawford is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently worked as a reporter at Iowa Public Radio.