Puffenbarger’s Sugar Orchard has been in continuous operation for over 100 years. Ivan Puffenbarger started helping his father when he was too little to do much. His father tied him up on a horse with his belt to keep him out of everyone’s way. When Ivan’s father, Melvin, operated the orchard, he drilled trees with an auger operated by hand, collected the sugar water in buckets, and carried those buckets by horse to the sugar house. He only made about 10 gallons of syrup a day, which was very good in that era.
Then, Ivan had an idea that would change his maple production. He began using plastic tubing rather than buckets to collect the maple sugar water. The first year they connected about half the trees by plastic tubing and to see how well it worked. The following year they went to all plastic tubing and collected water by the flow of gravity. At the time, Ivan had only one evaporator but soon bought another.
Ivan helped his father until he married his wife, Sis. They decided to purchase the maple syrup business from his father in 1959. They immediately set out to make substantial changes, focusing on increasing production. Ivan and Sis built a new sugar house and began using a tractor to tow barrels of sugar water back to the sugar house. Eight men worked most of the night to collect all the water. With these changes they went from 250 buckets collected each day up to 1,000.
In the meantime, Sis and the kids had been running a small dairy, milking about 50 cows. When they decided to stop dairy production and sell the cows, Ivan had the idea to hook up the milking machine used from the dairy to the trees. Everyone made fun of him and thought he’d lost his mind, but Ivan wanted to see if it would work. That season, he found that the milking machine that could typically milk four to eight cows at a time could be connected it to 800 trees at once! By the end of the year, he cut eight men from his labor force and upped the production by 25%.
In 1980, Ivan and Sis added another innovation, the reverse osmosis machine. This machine helps to keep the concentrated sugar water and throw away the purified water, speeding up the process of cooking the water down. Whereas his father made 10 gallons of syrup a day, Ivan could now make 30 gallons of syrup an hour!
They soon outgrew the production of their own 800 trees and started leasing more trees from other farms. Today, they tap over 2,000 trees with over 11,000 taps. The operation is truly a family affair, with their children and grandchildren helping out. Two months before tapping the trees, in November, their son Doug lays out the main lines. “He also bottles up ALL the syrup we make! Doug is the MAIN man here on the farm!” they say.
Unfortunately in 2008, the family suffered a devastating loss when an electrical fire caused their sugar camp to burn down. Though it was difficult to determine what their future would hold, they fortunately have rebuilt their operation to exhibit the history and modernization of the Maple Syrup Industry here in Highland County and beyond.
Puffenbarger’s Syrup is available at Food of all Nations (Charlottesville, VA) and The Shoppes at Dancon (Monterey, VA). The Orchard is a featured stop during the Highland County Maple Festival, the second and third weekends in March. It is located 5 miles west of Monterey. Turn right on Maple Sugar Road and travel 3 1/2 miles.