Hearing the steady drumbeat of a woodpecker as it drilled a tree a week ago, Erika Meyer knew the sugar maple sap would soon flow at her family’s farm.
The realization, which came from years of sensory experiences while in the woods in February and March, compelled Meyer to turn to her husband and say, "It’s sugaring time."
The Yoder family is among the more than 60 maple syrup producers throughout Indiana who make the annual pilgrimage into the woods every February to tap sugar maple trees, collect the sugar water and boil it down to syrup.
The work begins when the sap flows – while nighttime temperatures are below freezing and are followed by days filled with bright sunshine and temperatures around 40 degrees.
On Tuesday, Meyer stood in a rough plank building in the same Huntertown woods where her parents carried her months after she was born 38 years ago during the Yoder family’s annual sugar harvest.
After years in the woods, Meyer has learned the signs that indicate when the frozen earth has slowly begun to yield to spring even as other people complain about the lingering winter.
"It’s just a part of being out here," Meyer said.
Another Allen County sugar maple syrup producer, Doff Trolio, 70, condensed to one word what he finds amid the stand of sugar maple trees he taps.
"Freedom," Trolio said. "It kind of gets me away from everything."
While the Yoders trace their sugar maple syrup production back five generations, Trolio is the lone sugar water harvester at the St. Joe Christmas Tree Farm in northern Allen County.
Trolio said he began the work after the farm’s previous owner decided to tap the trees on a whim.
Now the farm has a new owner, but Trolio continues the work.
Trolio has about 500 taps in the woods. He hauls the sugar water to a shack he built from salvaged wood where he boils it down to syrup.
Though visitors to the farm can buy the syrup Trolio produces, he admits the work far outpaces the income.
"If it was money I was in it for, I wouldn’t be in it," Trolio said.
Trolio’s statement about the lack of profit has been echoed by other Indiana sugar maple syrup producers, said Jeff Settle, forest products specialist for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Forestry.
According to a report Settle compiled based on a census of maple syrup producers, Indiana’s 2008 sugar maple syrup harvest of more than 9,780 gallons topped the last banner year in 2005, when more than 8,150 gallons of syrup was produced.
The state’s largest sugar camps were in Elkhart, Putnam and Washington counties, Settle said.
The report also calculated the market value of the syrup as at least $353,000, although Settle said that number doesn’t include products consumed by the producers’ families or given as gifts.
Ultimately, the profitability of sugar maple syrup production – like most farms – also depends on equipment and labor costs.
With profit not being the motivation for most syrup producers, Settle said some people find the nostalgia of the process appealing, while others just like to be outdoors.
Although Settle doesn’t gather demographic information for his report, he suspects most syrup producers are aging, though he doesn’t believe sugaring is a dying art.
"I don’t think it’s going to grow at a very good rate," Settle said. "There’s always going to be those who do pass it down to their kids and their grandkids."
Larry Yoder, 67, Erika Meyer’s father, agrees the population of syrup producers "is unquestionably graying" but not dying.
Sugaring serves as a reminder of people’s dependency on nature’s natural cycles, Yoder said, a spiritual and humbling experience that reminds his family of the importance of sustaining and stewarding resources rather than simply seeing them as a one-time commodity to be used, consumed and lost forever for fleeting profit.
That philosophy was what Yoder said once prompted his father to tell a timber buyer, "Did you ever try and eat money on your pancakes?"