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People sample different batches of maple syrup as the Toms Creek Family Farm opens to the public for Maple Days on Feb. 22 in Wayne.

HUNTINGTON — Expanding maple syrup production by launching 15 agribusinesses in southern West Virginia is part of a new initiative announced by the Robert C. Byrd Institute at Marshall University.

RCBI says it has been awarded a $50,000 rural business development grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They will partner with syrup producer Toms Creek Family Farm of Wayne and the Williamson Health and Wellness Center in Mingo County to expand maple syrup production in Wayne, Mingo and Lincoln counties by helping 15 entrepreneurs in the region tap into the market.

Bill Woodrum, RCBI director of Entrepreneurship, said the Southern West Virginia Maple Technical Assistance Program will provide each new business with the equipment and training they need to launch and sustain their businesses.

“Each producer will receive tubing and taps for 20 to 30 maple trees, and a stove specifically designed and manufactured by RCBI to efficiently boil the sap,” he said.

In addition, participants will attend a Demo Day during which Greg Christian, co-owner of Toms Creek, will instruct participants on all aspects of syrup production, from tapping methods and tubing installation to sanitization practices, cooking processes, bottling and ideas for creating value-added products.

Woodrum added that RCBI’s entrepreneur services team will help each syrup producer develop a comprehensive lean business plan focused on identifying customers, developing distribution channels and setting pricing.

In addition, he said RCBI’s lean agricultural specialist will visit the selected producers to train them to manage their operations in the most efficient manner to reduce waste and maximize profits. RCBI also will provide technical assistance to assist these farmers in moving agricultural innovations from concept to commercialization through its “Early Stage Funding Opportunity initiative.”

Woodrum says the program will culminate with a Southern West Virginia Maple Summit in Williamson, where the 15 new producers and other like-minded individuals can share best practices and connect with restaurants, grocers and craft beverage producers interested in purchasing maple syrup and value-added products.

Despite the coronavirus pandemic, maple syrup production has been growing in the Mountain State. West Virginians produced 16,000 gallons of maple syrup in 2020, according to the West Virginia Department of Agriculture, which is an increase of 2,000 gallons from 2019.

“West Virginia produces only a fraction of the food consumed in our state,” Woodrum said. “Agribusinesses such as maple syrup production provide an opportunity to launch homegrown businesses but also keep production and food dollars in state. Our goal is not just to create new businesses, but to provide the support to ensure these operations succeed.”

Entrepreneurs in the region interested in participating in the maple syrup program should contact Evan Nelson, RCBI’s Lean Agricultural Systems Specialist, at enelson@rcbi.org or call 304-781-1657.