The hilly forests around Morgantown are still covered in snow and ice. Trees are bare, and the weather is still too cold for even the earliest of green spring shoots.

But the first harvest of the year is underway.

Blue plastic bags hang on sugar, black and red maples dotting an eastern-facing hillside, slowly filling with sap. Lora Lewis-Rudd and her family walked from tree to tree, checking the bags. When they have enough sap, or sugar water, the process of turning it into syrup begins.

“It’s a good way to break up the stir-crazy of the winter,” Lewis-Rudd said. “It’s nice sitting out here on a nice day, when the water’s dripping and sun’s shining.”

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Vermont may be known as the country’s maple syrup spigot, but Hoosier producers have forged their own reputation. Small producers and hobbyists trudge out into the forest during the last gasps of winter, harvesting the sugary sap that runs out and processing it into the culinary exclamation point for pancakes, oatmeal and desserts.

The nation’s producers will gather in Nashville next month for the annual National Maple Syrup Festival. Local syrup makers are taking the opportunity to show off what Indiana can do.

“People are becoming to be aware that we do make maple syrup in Indiana. Everybody thought it was made out East, so educating the public has been one thing that’s contributed to the success,” said David Hamilton, president of the Indiana Maple Syrup Association.

Last year, Indiana maple farmers produced 12,990 gallons of syrup, according to the Indiana Maple Syrup Association. Compared to the 3.17 million gallons of maple syrup harvested across the country, Hoosier production is literally a drop in the bucket: .4 percent.

But that production still had an economic impact. Indiana producers sold more than $533,000 worth of product last year. During the record-breaking season of 2013, the state produced more than $1 million worth of syrup.

Part of that stems from the fact that large maple operations aren’t established here, Hamilton said. The Indiana Maple Syrup Association boasts just 112 members, and just 60 operations reported producing in 2014.

In Indiana, about 44,000 trees were tapped last year. By comparison, syrup behemoth Vermont tapped more than 4 million trees.

Many of the people taking part are hobbyists — collecting and cooking their syrup on the weekends.

That’s how Lewis-Rudd’s family has been doing it for the past 50 years. They started operating in 1966, three years after her mother, Dorothy Lewis, purchased a tract of land just south of Morgantown. The property came with a small wooden shed equipped with syrup-making stove and evaporator.

The Lewises tap 35 to 40 trees on a small portion of the property. They don’t necessarily tap the trees every year, depending on the weather and if they have time.

The taps are 2-inch-long metal that are pounded into a hole drilled in the maple trunk. The Lewises hang plastic bags off the taps, allowing the sugar water to drip down.

The bags are emptied into a specially crafted pan that fits directly on top of their wood-fired furnace. Constant heat is applied to the pan, boiling the sap as it changes in color from a watery tan to a deep, thick reddish-brown.

“The whole process is nothing more than evaporation. The sugar is in the water that’s in the tree, and you just have to get rid of the water until you get syrup,” Lora Lewis-Rudd said.

The work is labor intensive — drilling 5/16-inch holes in the trees, pounding in taps, hanging buckets or bags and collecting the sugar water. That’s before you even start boiling the sap and producing what will become syrup.

Part of the challenge is that tapping is at the whim of nature.

The time to tap is when the daytime temperatures run above freezing, while dipping back down under the freezing mark at night.

Indiana farmers tap trees from mid-February to late March, depending on how severe the winter is and how quickly warmer weather comes on.

“When the tap runs, you have to boil it. It’s not something you can keep for a couple of days, because the quality of it diminishes,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton has been producing maple syrup for nearly 50 years. He became interested in it by accident.

“I had a blind date with a girl and pulled up in front of her house and thought something was on fire,” he said. “It turned out it was her dad making syrup.”

The girl he went to pick up was his eventual wife, Carol. As their relationship progressed, her father would let Hamilton watch the syrup evaporator for an hour each week. That led to more and more time spent in the syrup shack, and Hamilton gradually took over the operation himself.

“It gets into your blood. You’re preserving a part of history. This sugar camp has been in my wife’s family since 1911, and it’s part of our heritage,” he said.

Hamilton’s camp in the New Castle area consists of about 3,000 trees and has tubes that run from each tree, allowing the sugar water to flow directly to his evaporator without having to deal with buckets or plastic bags.

Using reverse osmosis, he can remove almost all of the water quickly and easily, cutting down his cooking time.

“Maple syrup is the first harvest of the season, so a lot of farmers originally made syrup because there was nothing else to do this time of year,” Hamilton said. “That’s still why a lot of people are still into it.”

It takes the Lewises 30 to 50 gallons of sugar water to get a gallon of syrup. The process can take hours as the cooking is done — as long as eight hours at the start just to get two or three cups.

Family members filter the finished syrup and bottle it themselves in their home. They’ve called their operation Lewis’s Sugar Shack, which is what they refer to their camp as.

“We do it strictly for our own pleasure and for gifts,” Dorothy Lewis said. “If it wasn’t something you were doing just to get out of the house in the late winter, it’s not something you’d do for profit because I don’t see any operations that can make a lot of money from it.”

By the numbers

Indiana Maple Syrup production

Gallons produced

2014: 12,990

2013: 22,405

2012: 13,161

2011: 17,088

2010: 11,317

Total taps

2014: 44,355

2013: 62,002

2012: 54,858

2011: 69,866

2010: 73,207

Economic impact

2014: $640,000

2013: $1,089,000

2012: $640,000

2011: $798,000

2010: $504,000

SOURCE: Indiana Maple Syrup Association

If you go

National Maple Syrup Festival

When: Thursday to March 8

Where: Brown County



Dinner series

What: Maple-based dinner and drinks served during a special presentation

Where: Brown County History Center, 90 E. Gould St., Nashville

When: 6 p.m. Thursday and Friday


  • Thursday — Leslie Taylor, a former full-time trial lawyer who gave it all up to live “off the grid” in a solar-powered cabin in Brown County, Ohio.
  • Friday — Mike Farrell, author and director of Cornell University’s Sugar Maple Research and Education Center

Cost: $35; beer pairings are an additional $7.50.


Weekend activities

Where: Brown County State Park lower shelter house, 1810

When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. March 7 and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. March 8


  • Interpretive hikes with tapped trees along the way
  • Native American and French colonial encampments
  • Dutch oven diva cooking demonstrations
  • 240 Sweets gourmet marshmallows
  • Brooke’s Candies gourmet hot chocolate

Moonshine exhibit

When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. March 7 and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. March 8

Where: Brown County History Center

Native American storytelling

When: 10 a.m. to noon, 1 to 2 p.m. and 3 to 5 p.m. March 7; 10 a.m. to noon and 1 to 3 p.m. March 8

Where: Brown County History Center

Pioneer Village

Where: Downtown Nashville

When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. March 7 and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. March 8


  • Pioneer sugaring
  • Spinning and weaving demonstrations
  • Salt boiling
  • Hide and fur preparation
  • Bluegrass music

Brown County Music Celebration

What: A live concert with rare performances by local musicians including Max 5 Watt featuring Chuck Wills, Hamilton Creek Bluegrass Band, Amanda Webb and Dave Bartlett

When: 7:30 p.m. March 7

Where: Brown County Playhouse

Cost: $12 for adults, $11 for students, seniors and military

Ryan Trares is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at or 317-736-2727.