A Sweet Legacy
A family’s longtime tradition of making maple syrup
As winter loosens its grip on Champaign County, a time-honored tradition begins to unfold at the Johnson Maple Syrup Farm, located near Mingo, within Pioneer Electric Cooperative’s service territory. The Johnson family, spanning generations, is immersed in the art of maple syrup production, blending traditional wisdom and old-fashioned techniques to bring the sweet nectar from the sugar maple trees to local tables.
The Johnson family’s connection to syrup is a tradition dating back to 1805, when the original Johnsons settled in the area. Today, the cabin where their grandfather was born in 1884 serves as a storefront for their syrup.
The current Johnsons’ father, Otho, and his brother, Phil, took over the operation in 1934.
Eric Johnson and his brother Grant now handle the farm’s day-to-day work, with help from their brother Al and cousin ‘Than Johnson. Together with their children and grandchildren, they proudly continue th.e family’s legacy on the farm. The brothers took over the operation in the late 1990s and hope to hand it over to the next generation.
When the brothers started managing the farm, they quickly realized they hadn’t spent enough time making the syrup and they had a lot to learn.
“It’s a very tedious process, in the shed, to get things right and make sure the syrup doesn’t get cooked too much or not enough,” says Grant. “There’s a fine line and if you mess it up, you’ll have bad syrup.”
From tree to table
The onset of syrup season hinges on weather conditions, with warm days and freezing nights triggering th.e sap’s flow.
Each year, the Johnsons hope to get as many as six instances of freezing, 20 degrees or colder, and then thaws, between 40 and 50 degrees, between early February and April 1.
“If that happens, it’ll be a good year,” says Eric. “If it freezes and then stays warrn, that’s usually when we have a bust.”
Each tree can support a tap for four to six weeks, and the farm taps approximately 700 trees.
“Our best days are the days we put the buckets out and bring the buckets back in,” says Eric. “It’s about a six week period — mid-February to April 1.”
The sap is collected in buckets hanging from spites and gathered by the Johnsons’ family, friends, and volunteers.
The collected sap is later emptied into a 4,000-gallon tank in the “sap shed.” From there, the sap, using the force of gravity, travels through underground tubing to the “sugar shed.”
The sap, initially at 2% sugar, undergoes a transformation, emerging as syrup with a sugar content of about 66%. The boiling process, fueled by a roaring wood-fire furnace, requires constant attention. The entire process, from sap entering the sugar shed to bottling, takes approximately three hours.
According to the Johnsons, a good year produces nearly 400 gallons, a bad year, closer to 100 gallons. And when the trees begin to bud, the honeybees arrive, and ants start coming back, they know their work is done for the year.
While they may not produce as much as some larger farms with high-tech tubing systems, the Johnson family takes pride in their syrup, a product of hard work and a family legacy. Johnson Maple Syrup is a testament to a family’s dedication to the art of maple syrup making — a legacy of sweet, sugary love that continues to flow through the generations.
“It’s a labor of love,” says Eric. “We do it as a hobby; it’s not a business. We have a great time doing it and have good friends and family who help us do it. We couldn’t do it without them.”
Visit to Johnson Maple Syrup Farm
Today, Johnson Maple Syrup can be found not only at the farm’s cabin but also at various locations in Urbana and West Liberty. The Johnsons enjoy sharing their passion for syrup making.
“We love to give tours. We get a lot of homeschool kids, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, church groups, school groups,” says Eric. “We love to talk to anyone who is interested.”
In recent years, they’ve even organized a pancake breakfast in March, inviting friends, family, and the community to share and enjoy the fruits of their labor.
“We’re trying to sell the nostalgia and the legacy. We make about 300 gallons a year; we know there are much larger operations that sell wholesale,” says Eric. “That’s one of the reasons we wanted to stay old-fashioned — the nostalgia and the legacy.”
The Johnson Maple Syrup Farm is located at 7044 Stevenson Rd., Cable, Ohio. More information may be found on the Johnson Maple Syrup page on Facebook.