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Duff’s Sugar House: Maple syrup the old-fashioned way

Published: Mar. 11, 2022 at 10:47 AM EST
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HIGHLAND Co., Va. (WDBJ) - The Highland County Maple Festival begins Saturday.

All the festivities, including all the sugar camps--- are back after being canceled the last two years.

Sugar camps are where maple syrup is made.

If you are driving in Highland County between January and March, and you see a light coming from a shack with a bunch of steam coming out, be sure you stop by.

“Basically, if the doors are open up top, something good is going be made and going out the doors,” said Tim Duff, the owner and operator of Fair Lawn Farms, and home to Duff’s Sugar House.

“It’s a 16- by 24-foot building. You’re basically sitting the way you would have been sitting in the 1860s -1870s. It’s a very traditional homestyle Sugar House.”

Tim Duff and his friend Pat Lowery built this shack, the center of the entire operation. This is where the Duffs make maple syrup---the old-fashioned way.

“We open the trees, drill the trees mid-January to late January, although it fluctuates each year. We drill a small hole in the tree certain diameter, certain depth. You insert a spile or a tap. We use the antique caps and take smiles. You hang a bucket, put a lid on it. Walk 20 feet to the next tree, do it again,” said Duff.

“And when it gets warm during the days, the CO2 starts rising under the skin of the tree under the bark, and as it comes up, it’s bringing the sugar water up. It finds a little hole you need comes out to the spiral or the tap into your bucket.”

Duff says they rely on their hands, gravity, the cold weather, and patience to make their syrup.

“You change any one of these factors. You’ve totally changed your flavor,” said Duff.

They empty all the buckets filled with sugar water and load it into a tank.

“32 to 36 hours later the tank is empty and we will have produced about 20 gallons of sweet water---an amber color or we try to schedule a full tank like that can be done by midnight,” said Duff.

It is a long process and may not look like much now, but in a few days, it’ll become the maple syrup we all know.

“On the next night, I go in, I go to sleep. I wake up at three --I force myself to back out at three. Drain off the 20 gallons that you’ve made. It gets put in the iron kettle. If we like the iron kettle by four maybe 4:30a at the latest. By noon to one o’clock, we will have made our four gallons,” said Duff.

And they repeat this process, over and over – if mother nature allows.

“They don’t run every day. They can’t. You’ll have your firewood all stacked like it is over there. You’ll have the pan cleaned; you’ll have everything ready to go. And then the weather never gets above 15 for a week. Trees don’t run, then all of a sudden, you get a 40-degree day or a 45-degree day and you’re madly getting the tractor fired up,” said Duff.

Duff says Highland County is one of the southernmost geographical regions to produce maple syrup—drawing in thousands of people from around the nation during the maple festival.

“We’ll tell them our family, we don’t know who’s coming. You treat everybody like family,” said Duff.

To learn more about the Highland County Maple Festival, you can head to the county website.

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