Making It: Bissell Maple Farm Brings Syrup From Tree To Table

Maker: Nate Bissell
Business: Bissell Maple Farm, Jefferson, OH

There’s a lot of family history with your maple business in Ashtabula County. What’s the story?

Growing up, Dad always made maple syrup. I did not know it was in my family's history. And then I found some old photos. Come to find out, Dad was using sap buckets that his dad used. My family's been making maple syrup for over 100 years in Ohio. And that gave me the maple syrup bug even more, just knowing it was in the family's history.

Maple farming in the Bissell family dates back to the 1800s. [Bissell Maple Farm]

I know there are several main steps in the syrup making process, and along with that, timing is everything. How does the season get started?

So here in Ohio, our maple season can run from late January into April. We really kind of watch when Easter falls. If Easter falls early into April or late into March, we know it's going to be an earlier maple season. With the technology we have today, we can actually tap trees in January.

When we’re going out for the tree tapping, we’re looking for a healthy spot in the tree, and drilling a 5/16 hole. We want to tap well before the first thaw, and it doesn’t hurt to tap early. It’s better to catch the first sap run than the last sap run. This year, we’re at about 9,600 taps. A little droplet of sap then travels down miles of tubing -- I think we have 35 miles of tubing on all the land that we manage -- and that little droplet goes all the way down and gets collected in a tank.

Nate Bissell and his father, David, working on one of their thousands of tree taps in February 2021. [Jean-Marie Papoi/ideastream]

So once collected in the tank, the sap completes the first leg of its journey. Where to next?                                                              

We'll collect the sap with a tanker truck, then haul it to our production facility in Jefferson, where it’s pumped through a flow meter so we know how much sap we've collected. From there, it will go into large collection tanks; we have 30,000 gallons of sap storage at this facility. We'll pull the water out of the sap with reverse osmosis, and then we take the concentrate, which is the super-concentrated sap, and boil that down into making syrup.

Nate Bissell watches as sap is pumped into holding tanks at the farm's production facility in Jefferson, OH. [Jean-Marie Papoi/ideastream]

Even though Bissell is one of the largest producers of maple syrup in Ohio, you alone can’t fulfill the huge demand. So tell me about the network you’re a part of that helps supply syrup across the state.

The maple industry is small, and one of the things that's really unique about our business is transparency. There are customers out there that buy lots of maple syrup, but there isn't one maple farmer that is big enough to supply them maple syrup. So for us, we partner with other maple farmers and we're open about it. We put it right on our jug.

We're one of the largest maple syrup producers in the state of Ohio, but there's no way we can actually produce all of the maple syrup for the amount of customers we have. What that means is we have to partner with other farmers. We need them. They need us. For us, it's really important that we have that relationship so we can make or bottle maple syrup for lots of companies.

Bottles of maple syrup wait to be labeled on the production line. [Jean-Marie Papoi/ideastream]

All in all, it sounds like you’ve been able to create your dream job?

For Dad, it was a hobby. He used to cook over a wood fire and he had a little two by four evaporator, and he would make the three, four or five gallons every year that the family would use. But that wasn't enough for me. I kept selling maple syrup, which means I had to make more. So we kept making more. The only reason I sell maple syrup is so I get to make more maple syrup. You just keep growing it, refining it, becoming better at your craft. It's an obsession. It is. I'm obsessed with maple syrup.

David Bissell works on tapping trees, which can begin as early as January. [Jean-Marie Papoi/ideastream]

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