Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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March 21, 2013

Maple syrup producer returns to W.Va.


Howell grew up in the Hackers Creek area of central West Virginia. "I wanted to go back to this life," he said. His wife, a former model who grew up in Chicago where her father owned a fine clothing store, enjoyed living outside of Cleveland, but gamely moved to the country.

"It really is like 'Green Acres,' " said a chuckling Howell, who wore a comfortably worn plaid shirt, jeans and red suspenders. Connie's stylish ensemble and coiffed blond hair did seem to offer contrast.

Howell started making syrup after he helped a friend with his syrup production business. "I became infected with syrup sickness. It causes you to miss work, and tell the boss, 'The trees are running.' Or you know the kids need shoes, but you really want a new piece of equipment," he said.

While the sap runs, usually in January and February, Ed keeps an exhausting 12- to 14-hour workday schedule that culminates each day with meticulous cleaning of all the equipment.

Next year, he plans to build a sugarhouse and move his maple syrup boiling equipment into it. He has about $16,000 in syrup equipment and $5,000 in tubing. At $12 a pint or $20 a quart, Howell will need to sell a great deal of syrup to cover costs. He once asked a friend who had produced syrup for 40 years about the return on investment.

"He said, 'Well, you gotta learn not to look too closely at those numbers,'" Howell said.

This year, production went into March, ending only after the 75-degree days on March 9 and 10. Higher temperatures cause the trees to bud.

"It's called buddy sap and it makes really bad syrup. It's not sweet — it's bitter," said Connie Howell.

After Howell recovers from the maple season, he returns to the steel industrial tooling business that occupies him the rest of the year. The tool and die equipment fills the rest of the 16- by 145-foot structure. He also does mill- and woodworking on a sawmill.

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