The sweet science of maple syrup: Sugaring with the Kehl family in Wyoming County
By Rick Ohler

Fresh quarts of medium amber maple syrup ready for sale. All photos by Kateri Ewing.
In the Wyoming County town of Bennington, tucked away in a stand of maple trees at the end of a winding farm road, sits the Kehl family sugar shack. There, alongside the windmills that have recently become part of the landscape, Norm and Carol Kehl engage in a centuries-old enterprise. During a season that runs from March into early April, the Kehls, with help from brother Bob Kehl and neighbors Joe and Amy Meyer, tap hundreds of trees, collect thousands of gallons of sap, and craft 800 gallons of pure maple syrup.

To spend an afternoon at the sugar shack, first tramping the twenty-five-acre sugar bush and then warming by the steaming pans of sap boiling over a roaring hardwood fire, is to learn many things from a man like Norm Kehl, retired dairy farmer and lifelong producer of Wyoming County syrup.

I learn first that Kehl’s “shack” is actually a substantial hemlock structure, complete with tasting room for customers and school field trips. Once inside I can’t help but notice the mountain of firewood that dominates half the building and the cloud of steam that obscures the activity near the fire. Only when I look beyond the shack do I discover the legion of hanging buckets and the miles of blue tubing running through his woods, connecting 2,300 taps to various sap collection points. Whatever romantic notions of sugaring I might have harbored are now replaced by a realization: this is not some backwoods hobby; this is farming—the meeting place of technology, tradition, and old-fashioned hard work.

Attending the boil at the Kehl family sugar shack.
Norm welcomes me as if I were family and begins my education in the fundamentals of syrup science. Lesson one is biology: how Mother Nature tricks the maple into sending its sap upward during the warm days of late winter only to have it retreat with the inevitable cold nights, allowing some of the sap to escape the trees during its travels and find its way into the tubing and buckets. Next is physics, with its laws of gravity, pressure, and vacuums governing the movement of the sap toward the sugar shack. Last is the chemistry lesson in which Norm explains how forty-five gallons of a liquid that tastes like water can be transformed through evaporation into one gallon of a golden nectar that is roughly sixty-six percent sugar and 100 percent delicious. All of this information Kehl conveys with the good humor of a country uncle and the expertise of an engineer.

On this day in mid-March the sugar shack is in full swing, and I marvel as eight helpers, mostly relatives and neighbors, mix efficiency with camaraderie, pausing now and again to wash down the wood smoke with a can of beer. A few members of the team stoke the fire under the 6-by-16-foot multi-chambered evaporation pan, and monitor the flow of sap from outside storage vats. Another runs the sap through a reverse osmosis membrane, separating water molecules from sugar molecules, reducing boiling time. Others of the crew move the sap along the channels in the pan and constantly check the temperature of the thickening liquid, carefully bringing it to 7 degrees—no more—over the boiling point of water, when it officially becomes syrup. Before declaring it finished, they pass the syrup through a filter of diatomaceous earth to remove any lingering impurities. Then Bob Kehl evaluates the syrup’s color, assigning it a grade—Light Amber, Medium Amber, Dark Amber, or Extra Dark Amber—light amber having the most delicate taste and extra dark offering the strongest maple flavor. Finally, he draws pure Kehl Maple Syrup from a spigot into cans and bottles, ready for sale.

Norm Kehl, lifelong maple syrup producer, dairy farmer, and Red Cross volunteer.

From there much of the syrup will join the bounty that is WNY agriculture at roadside stands like those the Meyers and Kehls operate up on Route 20A, ten miles east of East Aurora. These days maple syrup fetches a good price: $45/gallon and $15/quart. Expensive, but it certainly beats the artificial alternative.

It takes 45 gallons of sap to make one gallon of pure maple syrup.
After the day’s sap has been boiled into syrup, canned, and labeled, we head to Kehl’s farmhouse, also on Route 20A, for a chat. (Travelers out that way will know the house at the crest of the hill just west of Route 77 from the farm-scene mural painted on the adjacent barn.) At the kitchen table Norm offers me a gift of syrup and local cheese from the little store he operates in his breezeway. And then he talks easily about farming in an affable, rural patois that belies his intelligence and wisdom. Moving his hands as if caressing the hills and valleys of Wyoming County, he exudes love for his corner of the world. He represents the third generation of dairy farming Kehls in the area and the third generation to make maple syrup. “We used to count on sugarin’ money to cover our seed and fertilizer costs,” he says. “And we’d make some extra money if we had maple syrup to sell on our egg route on Buffalo’s East Side in the 1950s.” If he succumbs to a proud moment, it is when he talks about his son Jason, who has established himself as the fourth generation of Kehl dairy farmers, milking 135 cows down the road.

When Norm isn’t farming or sugaring, you’ll find him on the front lines as a fireman and a Red Cross volunteer. If a Wyoming County resident experiences a loss through fire or flood, Norm will be the good Samaritan who shows up with blankets or food and lodging vouchers. After 9/11 and after Katrina, Norm passed his farming duties to employees and headed to New York and New Orleans to lend a hand. Passionate about dairy farming, he’s made five trips abroad with VOCA (Volunteers Overseas for Cooperative Assistance) to teach dairy science in Egypt, Albania, Moldova, Russia, and Bulgaria. “I like to help out best I can,” he says.

Norm knows he won’t get rich in the sugaring business, but he covers his costs and then some. Besides, he says, “It gives me an excuse to spend time in the woods.”

Maple syrup by the numbers

Gallons of sap required to make one gallon of pure maple syrup:

Taps per tree:
One or two

Average gallons per tap:

Gallons of syrup produced in the U.S.:

Gallons of syrup produced in New York State:

Maple syrup producers in New York State:
Approximately 1500

New York’s production rank:
Third, behind Vermont and Maine

Value of New York State maple syrup:
$13.2 million (2008)

Taps used by New York State producers:
1.51 million

Maple syrup producers in WNY:
Approximately 150

Estimated 2009 WNY maple syrup production:
88,300 gallons

Estimated WNY maple syrup production by county:
Alleghany 14,040 gallons
Cattaraugus 13,443 gallons
Chautauqua 9,881 gallons
Erie 4,748 gallons
Genesee 1,608 gallons
Niagara 502 gallons
Orleans 3,034 gallons
Wyoming 41,105 gallons

Wyoming County’s rank among New York State maple producers:
Second, behind Lewis County

(2009 figures unless otherwise noted. Sources: New York State Maple Producers Association; Western New York Maple Producers Association; Wyoming County Maple Producers Association, Greg Zimpfer, director; Wyoming County Cornell Cooperative Extension: Wyoming County Board of Tourism)

Maple Events:
March 20–21, March 27–28 (10 a.m.–4 p.m.)
New York State Maple Weekend
Several hundred maple syrup producers statewide open their doors for tours, tasting, and fun.

www.nysmaple.com provides a complete listing of all members of the WNY Maple Producers Association and information about maple syrup, maple recipes, and maple events.

—Rick Ohler

Rick Ohler writes the biweekly “View From Right Field” column for the East Aurora Advertiser. He is a longtime writing instructor and workshop host, whose second Travel Writing Bus Trip to Wyoming County takes place on May 1. Visit his website, www.rightfieldwritingworks.com, for details.


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