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Sweet Business

by on April 10, 2014 9:59 AM

REBERSBURG — Just before you reach the end of Centre County, in the little village of Livonia, you’ll find Macneal’s Orchard and maple syrup business.

This time of year you won’t have trouble finding the place. Just follow your nose and the sweet smell of the sugar shack several hundred yards deep in the woods.

Andy and Ben Macneal have spent a lifetime working this land. The native Centre Countians put in almost endless hours to produce some of the finest agricultural products in the entire region.
Just as the sugar maple trees begin to run with sap, the apple trees in their orchard need to be pruned. That leaves very little downtime on heir 300-plus acre farm.

“We tap about a 1,000 trees,” said Andy as he stoked the fire that was boiling the water off the sap that had been collected that morning.  The brothers, together with their father Doug, collect about 15,000 gallons of sap each season. It takes 40 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of maple syrup.

A continuous feed of sap from a 750-gallon holding tank — into  the evaporator — makes for a long day tending a fire that must be kept hot, but not too hot that it scorches the maple syrup.

“It’s more of an art than a science,” explained Andy. “I guess you learn by trial and error. This system has been in operation since the 1890’s.”

Brother Ben handles the sales and marketing for the company, Macneal Orchards and Sugarbush, LLC.

The brothers’ apples and cider are sold at their farm stand in Livonia. Their maple syrup products can be found at a variety of shops throughout Centre County, including Tait Farm, Myer Dairy store, Way Fruit Farm, The Granary and A Basketful.

“We also sell at the Millheim Farmer’s Market,” Ben said. The Macneals provide Penns Valley School District with apples in season.

Andy and Ben have been in business for 35 years, although making maple syrup started as a hobby, with the family making maple syrup in a kettle in their house.

The Macneal orchard offers 30 varieties of apples, producing some 3,000 bushels each season. Regular customers say they’re the best apples you’ll ever eat. Smokehouse, Northern Spy, Winesaps, and Cortlands are just a small sampling of the apple varieties available at the farm.

Many local customers, including many Amish women who live along state Route 192, buy apples at Macneals because they need a particular variety to meet the needs of a family recipe that has been passed down through many generations.

As with every other farm, weather can be fascinating and frustrating. Pre-spring is a stressful time on the MACneal farm. It’s the time of year that both the maple trees and the apple trees need attention.

The work is worth the effort. Just taste the sweet nectar from the sugar maple trees. It’s as good as any syrup to be found anywhere, including Vermont.

Harry is a correspondent for the Gazette.
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