To most Ohioans the return of spring is marked by chirping birds, budding tree limbs and lawns transitioning from barren brown to grandiose green practically overnight. But Farm Bureau member and maple syrup producer Eddie Lou Meimer’s most welcome sight is the muddy floor of her 120 wooded acres in rural Morrow County. It’s a site that, for three generations, has produced naturally “sweet” results.
Meimer’s grandfather purchased Pleiades Farm in the late 19th century, named in honor of his seven daughters, referencing the constellation in the southeast summer sky known as “The Seven Sisters.” It’s a unique name, easily remembered and under which the farm’s syrup is still sold. He started the family sugarbush operation in the grove of maples behind the farm, selling maple syrup for added income. More than a century later, his granddaughter, along with her son, Jim, continue to profit from the maples.
The Meimers have more than 2,000 taps in their trees, all connected via a complex tubing system that pumps watery sap into a sugarhouse at the edge of the woods behind the farm. It’s quite a change from the traditional method of hanging galvanized buckets from hand-drilled taps, which the farm has seen most of its years.
The concept of maple syrup is simple enough: collect sap and boil it until the sugar content is high enough to call it syrup. But the process is a bit more complicated than that.
A nose that knows
“After doing this for so many years, I can just smell when the time is right,” Meimer said, referring to her ability to know when conditions are most favorable to tap the trees.
Optimum maple syrup weather is known as freeze and thaw, where temperatures are at or below freezing at night and warm during the day. Maple syrup producers hope for a three- to six-week period of freeze and thaw weather each year in order to gather the most sap.
Pleiades Farm averages about 500 gallons of syrup per year, or about a quart per tap, but production varies from year to year.
“If it warms up and stays warm, the trees start budding and we’re done,” Meimer said. “We need continuous cold nights and warmer days.”
The local advantage
“Farmers need to become educators and let the consumer know what they are going to get,” Meimer said. “It (direct marketing) gives consumers an opportunity to learn from the actual producers.”
Meimer began direct marketing by selling syrup at a Marion farmers’ market, but quickly learned that to do more business, she had to do something different. “The thing with selling just syrup is if you buy a gallon one week, you don’t need to buy one the next week, so that’s when I started selling the other products,” she said.
In addition to syrup, Meimer now markets old-fashioned maple sugar candies and suckers, maple-covered nuts, granulated sugar, maple jelly, maple walnut topping and a new maple cream, which is rarely made in Ohio, and some of her customers claim it’s even better than her syrup. Overall it’s increased profits three times to four times over selling syrup alone.
Pleiades has since expanded to farmers’ markets in Westerville and Worthington in Franklin County. Meimer also takes part in Worthington’s new indoor winter farmers’ market, where turnout has been impressive and consumers want their maple, asking Meimer all autumn if she would be there in winter.
In addition to central Ohio farmers’ markets, Pleiades products are found at the Westerville Raisin Rack, Lawrence Orchards in Marion or purchased right from the back door at the Meimer farmhouse south of Mt. Gilead.
Meimer herself can usually be found at farmers’ markets though, giving out samples of her maple cream and selling maple suckers for a quarter each. She might not be making much at that price, but “If you go to the market, every kid has one of those suckers in their mouth,” she said, “and they had to bring their parents along to be able to do that.”
For Meimer, it’s a basic marketing strategy that pays off, and for consumers, it’s a big way to support Ohio agriculture at its most basic level. Either way, it’s a pretty “sweet” deal.