Toward the end of bitter winters and months of being cooped up inside, the Hale family and others settling in what is now Cuyahoga Valley National Park, likely welcomed the (slightly) warmer days of February and March with highs in upper 30s and low 40s.

Not only would those daytime highs have felt better than sub-freezing highs, they also trigger the flow of sap from maple trees. Despite living a relatively Spartan existence, at least by today’s standards, early settlers in the Western Reserve found time to tap trees and make maple syrup, according to Jason Klein, director of Hale Farm and Village.

For the Hale family and a smattering of other early settlers, maple syrup and sugar was more of a necessity than it is today, he added.

"It was the only cheap way to add sweetener to your food because the cost of cane sugar was so much to transport," he explained, adding that even coastal states used maple sugar as a sweetener, often acting as a stand-in for sugar in baked goods and other items.

But maple syrup and maple sugar had been around for centuries by the time settlers moved into the Western Reserve in the early 1800s, he added.

Emphasizing he doesn’t know the true origin story of maple syrup, Jason Cash, owner of Cash Farms Pure Maple Syrup in Atwater, related a tale he shares with visitors to the farm. The story goes that an Iroquois chief years ago got angry with his wife and hurled his tomahawk into a nearby tree trunk, which happened to be a sugar maple. Beneath that tree was a vessel for collecting water that his wife had to fill later that day.

"As the day got warmer, the sap from the tomahawk wound dripped into this bowl," said Cash. "

His wife thought someone had filled the container with water.

"She used the sap she thought was water to cook a venison roast, and by the time it was ready it kind of smelled really good," said Cash, adding eventually someone figured out the sap from the tree probably filled the container and was used to cook the dinner.

This month, area residents can see how the Hale family would have tapped trees and made syrup during Hale Farm’s Maple Sugar Festival and Pancake Breakfasts March 14, 15, 21 and 22 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

"We have a wood-fired evaporator, and the collection of all the sap is manual," said Klein. "We demonstrate the process that was used in the early- to mid-1800s. The process of actually turning sap into syrup has not changed. It’s more the collection methods and type of systems to really boil the sap."

A comparison between the 1910 sugar house at Hale Farm and Village and Cash’s, which was built a few years ago, illustrates the differences in collection and boiling methods.

While metal buckets are de rigueur at Hale Farm and Village, Cash said he uses plastic bags to collect sap from trees. Their goals account for the difference between methods at Hale Farm and Village and Cash Farms.

Klein said Hale Farm and Village’s maple syrup operation primarily serves as a window to the 1800s. Cash, whose day job is overseeing GetGo’s beer, wine and liquor sales, has made a significant side hustle of his maple syrup habit.

While Hale Farm and Village may tap 25 to 50 trees each year, Cash, who said his operation is probably typical of many in the area, taps significantly more.

"I tap 825 trees working with a couple other farms in the area," he said, adding he taps 267 trees on his own 100-acre farm. "If I wanted this to be my primary occupation, I would have to tap at least 5,000 trees."

While the sap goes directly into the wood-fired evaporator at Hale Farm and Village, Cash runs it through an ultra-violet light to sterilize bacteria and a reverse osmosis filter to suck out some 50% of the water in the sap before it even gets to the evaporator itself.

Cash said there are four grades of syrup visitors to his farm can try from very light to very dark. The darker syrups generally have the most maple flavor and are often the choice of those producing the syrup.

Since the point of the maple tree tapping at Hale Farm and Village is education, a lot of tapping takes place during the operating hours of the Maple Sugar Festival and Pancake Breakfasts, according to Klein.

Les Ober, an agricultural and natural resources program coordinator for the Geauga County Ohio State University Extension Office who taps his own trees in Newbury Center, said some operations dwarf Cash’s.

"I know of half a dozen 4,000 to 6,000 tap farms that are run by the Amish," he said. "They produce probably the largest percent of syrup in the state of Ohio."

Cash said he has to take about a day off work each week during the eight-week tapping season, which traditionally begins Feb. 20. Year-round, he said he’s usually doing something related to the maple syrup operation, whether its tapping trees and boiling sap during the height of the season, leading tours, putting on shows, selling candy and syrup through the farm’s retail operation or chopping wood to keep the evaporator going.

"One of the nice things about the farm is there’s always a tree that falls down somewhere," he said. "I’ve never had to cut down a tree just for firewood."

He said he chops a lot of firewood during the summer and early fall so it has an opportunity to dry.

While Cash said he’s moved to plastic bags, which are larger, recyclable, and transparent (easier to see if collection is needed), Ober said many farms with have adopted collection tubes, which save time.

"Originally, that system was set up to run on gravity, then they added a vacuum to it," he said.

While gravity systems work well in areas with more extreme topography like areas of Vermont and New Hampshire, Ober said the vacuum system helps a great deal in northeast Ohio. In a system including 800 taps, he said it approximately doubles collection.

"If we had a gravity system or buckets, we might have 1,500 gallons," said Ober. "We pulled close to 3,000 gallons from those same woods with the vacuum system. It doesn’t hurt the tree, but if the taps are open, they run continuously."

Cash and Ober described the tubing system as being similar to a river with a main line and various tributaries feeding into each other and eventually the main line which ends at the sugar house.

While he’s not excited about putting the tubing system away at the end of each collection season, Cash said he’s considering one, nonetheless. Every day the sap flows, he said he spends three or four hours collecting sap depending on how much help he’s got.

Bumper crop

This year’s record-setting warm winter is creating something of a bumper crop for area maple syrup farmers, said Ober.

"So far, this has been one of the best starts I’ve ever seen in maple production," he said. "We’ve had extraordinary maple production. It’s been phenomenal. We’ve been averaging 2.5 to 3 gallons of sap [per tap] right down the line. That’s not typical by any means. It’s usually around 1.5 gallons."

Nights with lows below freezing combined with daytime highs around 40 degrees Fahrenheit is a "recipe for a maple sap tsunami," he said.

Prior to Feb. 20, the traditional start to the maple season, some area farms had already produced half a crop, he added.

He said extended cold or warm periods would cause the sap to stop flowing.

"If your taps are frozen for two weeks straight, they tend to dry out," he said.

Although some other regions are trying to transplant maples so they can produce syrup, Cash said the climate in the Great Lakes region and New England is uniquely suited to producing maple syrup.

"You can’t make maple syrup everywhere," he said. "If you draw an oval from Wisconsin in the west, to Kentucky to New England to the southern parts of Canada, in the entire world, that’s the only place you get the temperature fluctuations you need with warm days and cold nights. Right around the Great Lakes is the only place in the world where the trees grow in enough abundance to make maple syrup."

A sweet family outing

For those who would like sample this tasty branch of agriculture, numerous pancake breakfasts and maple sugar festivals are going on in the area in addition the Hale Farm and Village’s festival during the month of March.

The Ohio Maple Madness Tour, organized by the Ohio Maple Producers Association, includes a many farms syrup lovers can visit March 7, 8, 14 and 15 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Thirty-two of the 37 stops on the tour are in northeast Ohio, which Ober said is the hub of maple syrup production in the state, according to a booklet on this year’s event.

Locally, the following farms are participating: Goodell Family Farm, 9090 Route 44 in Shalersville; Cash Farms Pure Maple Syrup, 7057 Virginia Road in Atwater Township; Hale Farm and Village, 2686 Oak Hill Road, Bath Township.

Many more farms are located in Geauga County. For more information about the Ohio Maple Madness Tour, visit www.ohiomaple.org.

Reporter Bob Gaetjens can be reached at 330-541-9440, bgaetjens@recordpub.com or @bobgaetjens_rpc.