Photo by Max Catalano
Laura McManus-Berry’s business is sweet. Since 1996, Sticky Pete’s Maple Syrup, the company she and her late husband founded, has produced, bottled and sold maple syrup from a farm just a few miles southeast of the city of Athens. Through 20 years of business, Sticky Pete’s has built a reputation for itself among stores, restaurants and customers in Athens County.
At 60 years old, Laura is still energetic about the maple syrup business. She continues to pour time and effort into the sweet process of turning sap to syrup, and she knows what it takes to get the job done.
“You’ve got to go from being the farmer and doing the labor, to the [scientist] of the trees and the sap as it comes out, to the cook, boiling and getting it right,” she says, “because you just get one shot.”
For Pete’s Sake
Making maple syrup was a hobby for Laura’s late husband, John, for several years before they opened their business. When they first thought of producing syrup commercially, they tagged about 750 maple trees. The woods had been thinned out years before the Berrys came to the property, and many of the trees with hard wood had been cut down and used to support mine structures. Over the years, the farm has expanded to host 2,000 trees on 40 acres.
The company got its name from the family’s dog, Pete. The Berrys met Pete when he wandered onto their property, and they decided to take him in.
“We wanted to name it after Pete because ‘John and Laura’s Maple Syrup’ sounded pretty boring to us,” Laura says. “… We really didn’t have a marketing strategy. We just knew 20 years ago there was no one in the area … locally making syrup on a large enough scale to have it in shops and retail it.”
In its 20 years, Sticky Pete’s has made a name for itself. The Athens Farmers Market, Village Bakery, Casa Nueva, White’s Mill and Nelsonville Emporium sell the syrup. Restaurants use the syrup in recipes; Sticky Pete’s is a key component in the maple barbeque sauce sold at Uptown Grill. Laura is also adding other maple products to her lineup, including maple-crusted nuts, maple granulated sugar and maple candy.
Tapping into Potential
It all starts with the sap. To reach it, Laura walks down a dirt and gravel road, stepping over the occasional deep ruts of mud left by tires. At the end of the road sits a squat 1,500-gallon tank, insulated by blue foam and covered with a black-and-white-patterned cloth. Bundles of gray tubing run from the top of the tank to the hillsides. Those are the main lines, which branch into smaller, lateral tubes that connect to the maple trees. The system is fed by gravity; the sap flows back down the hills and into the tank for Laura to collect.
She makes changes and improvements to the system every year. Despite the steep climbs and heavy lifting, Laura loves what she calls “constructing the puzzle [of ] putting together the lines” and being in the woods.
“I love these trees. They’re so amazing, and … I learn something new every year,”she says. “If you pay attention you’ll learn. Little nuances, little different things. The trees dictate everything. Mother Nature is true. She tells you what you can and can’t do, and when it’s over, it’s over.”
Weathering the Weather
Recent warm winters have affected syrup production. In 2016, Laura made the lowest quantity of syrup she can remember from the past 20 years. This year, a sudden temperature spike at the end of February temporarily shut down sap production.
“If we don’t have cold, if we don’t have freezing and thawing for a certain amount of weeks, you’re not going to make a maple crop,” she says. “You just won’t.”
But if temperatures are below freezing, the sap won’t flow. During production season, which usually runs from February to March, Laura wakes up early to check the weather. As soon as the temperature rises above 32 F, she can begin to pump the sap through a long, thin supply line that runs along the path to her homestead. At night, if the temperature dips again, she’ll have to blow any sap still in the line back up to the tank in the woods. She keeps a frying pan near the tank for just such times, setting it under the pump to catch any leaks.
“[With] the amount it takes to get one drop of sap from that tree, believe me, I freak when I see sap spilled on the sugarhouse floor,” she says.
Concentrating on the Sweet
The sugarhouse, a one-story, rectangular building that could comfortably fit three cars, is the sap’s destination. Thousands of gallons of sap flow through the woods to a second massive holding tank beside the sugarhouse. Pipes connect the tanks to the machinery inside.
Even when there’s no sap, the sugarhouse still smells of maple. Tools, tubes and 20 years’ worth of old photos, manuals and memories line the walls. On the right side of the shed, the reverse osmosis machine removes a large amount of water and leaves behind a more concentrated product. Laura says the sap in the pipe is between 1.5 and 3 percent sugar; after it has gone through the machine, it contains between 9 and 11 percent sugar. But the state of Ohio requires pure maple syrup to have a sugar content of at least 66.5 percent.
That’s where the evaporator, painted black with outlines of maple leaves on the bare metal, comes in. But when the evaporator first arrived at the Berrys’ sugarhouse, John and Laura didn’t know what to do with it.
“When we got this evaporator, there wasn’t even an instruction manual with it. I’m not kidding,” Laura says. “You get a drill and at least you get an instruction manual, right? No, they sent nothing, and we’re like, OK, let’s figure this out.”
Laura describes her husband as a “Renaissance man” who could pick up and figure out almost any project. John, a hard landscape construction artist, purchased the farm in Athens in the ’70s, and he built most of the structures on the property: their house, the pond and the studio where he carved marble.
Together, they got the evaporator up and running. The boiling process takes hours; the sap flows from the third holding tank into the preheater, which brings the sap up to 180 F. It then falls into the flue pan, where it boils until it becomes syrup. Laura empties the syrup into 5-gallon buckets, which she lifts and pours into a filtering machine. That removes all the bits of hardened sugar — sugar sand — in the syrup, leaving it clear and smooth. After that, the syrup is stored until it’s ready to be bottled, packaged and sold.
Laura grew up on a corn farm in Illinois, but she never felt driven to be a farmer as a child. She traded land for sea and worked her way from cook to ship captain in the Virgin Islands. Her company helped the government test sonobuoys, small buoys equipped with sonar that aid in anti-submarine warfare and underwater acoustics research.
In 1981, she met John through mutual friends. In 1989, when Laura was stationed in St. Croix in the Virgin Islands, Hurricane Hugo hit and wiped out most of the island’s infrastructure. She moved to Athens with John the following year. Although John passed away from cancer in February 2002, his name still appears on the company’s logo. “I feel like he’s still a big driving part of this business, and that’s why I haven’t changed my label,” she says. “Because Sticky Pete’s to me really means John Berry and Laura Mc Ma nu s-B err y.”
At heart, the business is still the same. Laura continues to run Sticky Pete’s with help from a friend who assists with the sales and marketing aspects of the business and a boarder who lives with her in exchange for labor. Laura feels a sense of loyalty to her long-term customers and does her best to make sure they are satisfied before looking to expand.
“I’m not a big business,” she says. “I get by. Am I successful? I make ends meet. Can I retire? Probably never. … But I love what I do. I love being in the woods; I love nature.”