How Sweet It Is

Don Olson produces maple syrup on his 75-acre farm.

By Paul King | 6/12/11

At 7 a.m. the air around Don Olson’s farm in Blue Rock, W.Va. is filled with a sweet aroma. The scent comes from the small 27 by 21 foot structure – built from the ground up, where Olson is already sitting, preparing for the day’s maple syrup production. This is his sugarhouse.

Inside, Don Olson stops an automatic timer sitting next to his large wood stove, then proceeds to load a large wood burner with several logs to keep the fire at the perfect temperature. He’s beginning a long day’s work in the sugarhouse that he and a couple of friends built and filled with mostly-used brewing parts. It took the crew a couple of years to get all the lines strung, the plumbing finished and the sugarhouse fully built.

The idea of starting a business came several years ago while Olson was out one afternoon working on his maple trees. After discussing it with his wife, Linda Zimmer, they decided to make a go of it.

“We had been talking about it for a couple of years, she was all in favor of it,” Olson said. “She was totally enthusiastic about it and still is.”

Linda is a creative arts specialist at a local nursing home, but acts as the Blue Rock Farm business manager, making daily phone calls and sales. She also helps out during the tedious process of bottling the syrup.

“I was new to understanding all of it. He’d (Don) been really nurturing the trees, and the more I read about it, the more I was just intrigued by the process,” she said. “We’d been looking at other sources of income, and I began to think about marketing possibilities.”

The first season Olson and his wife cooked syrup, they produced 125 gallons and the following season they made just 90 gallons. This season Blue Rock Farm produced 350 gallons of the syrup. Production over the years has changed drastically because of a number of variables.

“We’ve been doing this production for three years now and this year has been far and away the best. The first two years I did it, the vacuum machine wasn’t working and the weather didn’t cooperate,” Olson said. “This year we got all the equipment working right and had good weather for it. Put those two together, and we were making some serious syrup.”

Olson is a self-taught producer, learning how the process works from another area syrup producer a few years back. He’s also been able to make the process more efficient by studying a book about North American Maple Syrup and exploring a website forum for syrup producers. It was also a combination of getting used to new equipment he had purchased.

The Olsons’ Blue Rock Farm in southern Randolph County is one of only seven maple syrup producers in the state according to the West Virginia Department of Agriculture and was the first to become certified organic.

A maze of hundreds of tubes, connected to Olson’s 75 acres of maple trees, feeds up to 750 gallons of sap into a holding tank near the sugarhouse. Olson will spend two to three months from mid-February to mid-march working on the syrup. Depending on what the trees do, Olson can be working throughout the night in his small sugarhouse until as late as 3 a.m.

“I’m working for the maples and they tell me what to do when,” he said.

With the maple syrup season beginning in early February and only lasting a month or two, Olson spends many long days in his sugarhouse. The production starts with mainly sugar maples and some red maples scattered across the Blue Rock Farm. Olson and three of his friends spent a full day earlier this year wading through snow with cordless drills and tubes, drilling and tapping nearly 1,500 maple trees. These are trees that he’s spent years thinning and growing for the sole purpose of producing maple syrup.

Olson bought the property where his farm is located in 1973 and lived there for eleven years before he left to pursue a landscaping design career. He worked in Morgantown and Maryland for close to eight years before moving back to the same exact piece of property. It wasn’t until 1998 when he decided to build the custom house he currently lives in and give up the landscaping career to create what is now known as Blue Rock Farm.

Olson lived here for five or six years before committing to the maple syrup idea. Three years ago, he used his savings to buy used equipment to get started. Much of the equipment came from northern New York state and Vermont. He located the various pieces by setting up want ads in a trade publication called The Maple News and picked up the pieces as they became available.

One of these pieces, a cylinder vacuum pump, sits nearby a tiny shed behind the sugarhouse pulling tree sap from the trees to the stainless steel holding tank at the lowest point on the property. A special reverse osmosis machine powered by a noisy generator then filters out pure water from the sap, saving valuable time and firewood.

From there, the sap travels to a large evaporator where the syrup is boiled at a precise temperature of seven degrees higher than the boiling point of water. Olson watches closely, periodically testing the density along the way, so it doesn’t burn.

Once the excess water has evaporated, he transfers the syrup to 35-gallon barrels where it’s stored until he’s ready to do something else with it. That something else is getting it to the right temperature and density for the filtering and bottling process. He cooks it again briefly in a separate freestanding pan to ensure it’s at the right density then fills pint, quart, and gallon-sized jugs. One of Olson’s friends, Ricky “Hawk” Hammonds, has been helping out on the farm since it began and has a special relationship with Olson.

“Don and I just enjoy being in the woods,” Hammonds said. “We’re happy when we’re out here.”

It’s a peaceful place where a lot of hard work is dedicated to a product that Olson and his wife hope the community appreciates. Joel Wolpert, a friend and former Farmers’ Market President has seen a lot of enjoyment from their syrup in the community.

“I think everybody looks forward to seeing them at market, even if they’re the only ones selling. I think they have a strong following in the Elkins community,” Wolpert said.

Most of Olson’s syrup is sold at local farmers markets, the Maple Syrup Festival in Pickens and different health food stores in Berkley Springs, Elkins, Morgantown and Shepardstown for $50 a gallon, $18 for a quart and $12 for a pint.

“There’s one busy season in the year when you really work hard, hard, hard. But then it’s over.” Olson said. “If I was cooking like I was the last thirty days, year round, it’d get tiring. It’s short and intense.”

Even though the process is tiring and hundreds of gallons are made each year, Olson has an uncanny desire for the syrup he produces and hopes to keep the business alive for several years to come.

“I can’t seem to get tired of the stuff,” Olson said.

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