The “sugar makers” of Virginia’s Highland County have been perfecting their art for hundreds of years with some families continuing to produce maple syrup into the sixth and seventh generations. Lauren and Christoph Herby of Tonoloway Farm are putting their own stamp on that proud heritage by tapping a different tree entirely.
“We don’t have enough maples to solely support a business, but I learned that you can make an absolutely unique syrup from the abundant black walnuts growing in reforested cattle pastures on our farm,” explains Christoph. “Some established syrup producers were a bit perplexed when we first started, but their support has been invaluable as they showed us the ropes of harvesting and boiling syrup.”
The couple was truly breaking new ground when they first started experimenting with the product in 2019. While indigenous peoples paved the way in making syrup from varied tree species, Virginia had no existing walnut syrup industry and they had to learn on the fly using borrowed equipment and observations gained from the local maple syrup masters.
It takes about 70 gallons of black walnut sap to produce one gallon of syrup, so the Herbys needed to tap over 2,000 walnut trees and set up five miles of sap harvest lines to make the operation viable. The production process is similar to the maple variety with the sap boiled for hours over a wood fire until the water evaporates and natural sugars caramelize to transform it into a sweet syrup with a complex flavor.
To grow their processing capacity, the Herbys reached out to the Virginia Foundation for Agriculture, Innovation and Rural Sustainability (VAFAIRS) for assistance in securing a Value-Added Producer Grant (VAPG) from USDA Rural Development. The 2021 project provided much-needed working capital to scale up from a small business using kitchen tools to commercial-scale production with industry standard equipment.
“We were trying to develop and promote a little-known product,” says Herby. “The grant gave us the courage and confidence to take this leap of faith and make it work. We’re now in our fourth year and have found a niche in the market. We couldn’t have grown this fast using only our own farm capital.”
Herby says the funding has helped them increase processing capacity, develop distinctive packaging and implement marketing strategies that have been key to their success in the face of pandemic-induced price hikes. VAPG funding was also used to help create a farm manager position, which is especially critical for the Herbys who travel overseas for extended periods to perform humanitarian work.
Will Shepherd came into the position with experience in sustainable farming and the culinary industry but had to get a crash course in syrup making during about six months of overlap with Herby. He is now in year two of managing syrup production and 2023 was especially challenging due to a weather-related decline in sap yields.
“A lot of our work happens at a very specific time of year, so there’s an element of unpredictability,” says Shepherd. “If the weather is too warm, it’s not a good season. If it’s too cold, production is delayed.”
Tonoloway customers are serious about their walnut syrup. Shepherd has gotten emails from folks who are really frustrated they didn’t get any this year due to the limited supply. Fortunately, the farm’s best-selling product and claim to fame is a maple-walnut blend that balances the classic sweetness of maple with the rich complexity of walnut syrup. Tonoloway also offers other syrup product lines like hickory and apple cider as well as mushrooms, garlic and forest botanicals sold at farmers markets.
“My job is to make decisions in line with the Tonoloway Farm vision,” says Shepherd. “Right now, I’m focusing on getting into different farmers markets. The majority of our sales are face-to-face, so we can have conversations and offer samples. Usually when somebody tastes it, they are sold.
“Anything sweet has syrup potential, and I keep thinking of different varieties like watermelon,” Shepherd jokes.
Herby thinks the product is a perfect fit for the farm, which was named after a limestone feature in the karst topography of the Alleghany Highlands. He’s certain that the steep, rocky property was always meant to be a food forest of nut and fruit trees and has partnered with Virginia Tech and Future Generations University (W.Va.) to demonstrate new production methods so others can learn from this innovative forest farm.
“While we had our doubts at the beginning, we believe these Appalachian woodlands can be preserved and honored by bringing their sweet secrets to market,” says Herby. Curious readers can taste for themselves when the next batch of walnut syrup comes off the fire in spring 2024.
Agricultural producers interested in learning more about the VAPG program can contact Laurette Tucker at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo Caption: Tonoloway Farm is building a loyal customer base through direct sales at farmers markets and events highlighting the Virginia Maple Syrup Trail (courtesy photo).