How a Sugary Pandemic Project Turned Jethro Heiko Into Philly’s Maple Syrup Evangelist
Starting with a single tree in his back yard, the consultant-turned-sap expert has now created eight hubs in the region for "sugaring" enthusiasts, and has begun work with Stockton University to develop maple syrup as a regional commodity.
A few years ago, Jethro Heiko’s relationship with maple syrup was pretty much the same as yours and mine.
For me, that means there’s a sticky bottle somewhere in the back of one of my kitchen cabinets — I’m not sure which — and when I’m next called upon to make blueberry pancakes for my daughter, I’ll find it, wipe it down with a wet paper towel, crank the crystal-crusted lid from its mouth, and plop it down in front of her at the dining room table. After breakfast, it goes back in the cabinet, to be forgotten about until next time.
But for Heiko, the relationship between man and syrup has become much more intimate recently.
Once upon a time, starting in 2003, the Boston transplant was living with his wife, Chelsea, in a relatively treeless section of Fishtown. He ran a community-engagement consulting company that took on everything from the proliferation of casinos in Philly to the war in Afghanistan to Arctic drilling. The couple had two kids while in Fishtown, and the neighborhood began losing its charm to a surge of development. Heiko and his neighbors tried to battle some of those developments, like the Fillmore Philly concert hall. Those battles, one by one, were lost. “It was pretty clear that they were going to start knocking all these buildings down,” he recalls. “And that’s precisely what they did.”
In 2014, kids Orson and Hazel were four and six years old, respectively, and Jethro and Chelsea were craving green space for them — something Fishtown is nearly bereft of. So the family started looking for a new home. In 2018, they landed in the much less densely populated, much less developed neighborhood of East Oak Lane.
If you’re not up on your Philly geography, East Oak Lane is about six miles due north of Fishtown, on the northernmost edge of North Philadelphia. It’s full of big Victorian houses on big (okay, bigger than Fishtown’s) plots of land. And as the name might suggest, East Oak Lane has lots of trees — trees that are, in many cases, huge, and often as old as those houses built near the turn of the 20th century.
When the Heikos moved into their 1905 Arts and Crafts home just off Old York Road and Cheltenham Avenue, they admired the big old trees around their house. But they didn’t know much about them. This is where a good arborist can really come in handy. In their case, it was Robb Grace, a certified tree expert who had recently moved out of the neighborhood. While on a job next door, Grace had a look around their property and pointed out that the tree towering over their new backyard was an Acer saccharum, a.k.a. a sugar maple. Heiko would soon learn through some basic internet research that the sugar maple is the tree you want in your backyard if you’ve ever thought about making your own maple syrup.
All trees produce sap. It’s the thick liquid that flows through the trunk and into the branches, carrying water and nutrients — the stuff you can’t get off your hands after you cut down and put up your Christmas tree each year. Some trees, like pine and sumac, yield terrible-tasting — and, in rare cases, poisonous — sap. Others produce sap that you’d only consider consuming if you found yourself in dire straits on an episode of Naked and Afraid. And then there are maple trees, which produce a uniquely sweet sap. The sugar maple’s sap has the highest sugar concentration of all maple sap. Heiko’s curiosity was sparked by the discovery of this solitary sugar maple in his backyard.
“I’m trying to picture my dad tapping a sugar maple,” Heiko laughs when asked if he perhaps comes from a long line of New England syrup people. “No, this really came from out of nowhere.”
“Sugar-maple sap is only about two percent sugar when it oozes from the tree. You need to boil it down and evaporate all that water (and kill off potentially harmful bacteria) to get a highly concentrated version of about 66 percent sugar. That’s maple syrup.”
For Christmas 2019, Chelsea ordered him a tree-tapping kit online for less than $100. And in February 2020 — February is prime maple-tapping season in these parts, due to the fluctuations between nighttime and daytime temperatures — Heiko recruited his son and daughter for Project Maple Syrup.
Using a five-16ths-inch drill bit, he bored a hole an inch and a half into the trunk at an ever-so-slight upward angle, to create a hole that pitched ever so slightly downward, to let gravity do its thing. (Don’t worry: Trees are pretty good at healing themselves once the season is over.) Then Heiko inserted a stainless-steel spile, or tap, connected to a length of food-grade tubing and placed a five-gallon bucket on the ground at the other end of said tubing. In less than a minute, with his kids anxiously staring into the bucket waiting for something to happen, sap came trickling out.
“There were lots of oohs and ahhs,” he says of their reaction. But it wasn’t time for pancakes just yet. Sugar-maple sap is only about two percent sugar when it oozes from the tree. You need to boil it down and evaporate all that water (and kill off potentially harmful bacteria) to get a highly concentrated version of about 66 percent sugar. That’s maple syrup. Federal law actually mandates this percentage if you want to call your product by that name.
To give you an idea how much sap goes into maple syrup, consider that the single sugar maple in Heiko’s backyard yielded about 35 gallons of sap, from which the family wound up with not quite one gallon of maple syrup, some of which they gave as gifts, with the rest being served on their breakfast table.
Had all of this happened a year or two earlier, that might have been the end of Heiko’s maple-syrup journey. But this was 2020. Because the whole sap-extraction process requires fluctuation between freezing temperatures at night and above-freezing temperatures by day — this freeze-thaw, freeze-thaw gets the juices flowing, so to speak — maple-syrup season wraps up in early-to-mid-March. And surely you remember what happened in mid-March 2020.
On March 16th, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney ordered all non-essential businesses to shut down, suggesting a possible reopening date of March 27th, which turned out to be the very definition of wishful thinking. On March 19th, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf announced statewide closures. We were about to enter the thick of a lengthy pandemic. And Heiko was about to have lots and lots of time on his hands.
Like many of us, Heiko soon found himself spending as much time outdoors as possible, exploring his and adjacent neighborhoods on foot. And he realized that the sugar maple in his backyard wasn’t a rarity. There are sugar maples on practically every block. In fact, there are sugar maples in great volume in much of the Commonwealth.
So while the rest of us were working on our sourdough starters, building pizza ovens in our backyards, or constructing DIY home-office lofts in our condos, Heiko read everything he could find about maple sugaring, which is the technical term for extracting maple sap and transforming it into syrup.
He began knocking on the doors at homes on properties where he spotted sugar maples, asking residents if they’d like to be part of a not completely formed and perhaps cockamamie idea: to turn East Oak Lane into a center of maple-syrup production.
“People were really surprised to learn they could do this,” Heiko tells me. “One person was almost angry that he was living there all this time and had no idea he could make his own maple syrup.”
Heiko continued his door-knocking campaign. He posted a message on Nextdoor, the hyperlocal social network where topics of discussion tend toward trash pickup (or the lack thereof) and neighborhood gossip like Who’s leaving their dog’s poop on my sidewalk? and Who stole the package from my stoop?
One by one, neighbors signed up, expressing varying degrees of enthusiasm. Some simply granted Heiko permission to tap their trees. Others wanted to be more involved, offering to help collect buckets of sap from different houses.
“I saw his post on Nextdoor and was into this idea immediately,” says Kirsten Mertus, a stay-at-home mom in East Oak Lane. “I was already doing a lot of gardening with my two kids and figured if we could get maple syrup out of our trees, why not? So I basically spent the pandemic carting a baby and a bunch of maple syrup in my car.”
By the time February 2021 rolled around, Heiko had worked with the community to create a network of some 40 tappable maple trees in East Oak Lane and nearby neighborhoods. By the end of March, those 40 sugar maples yielded 700 gallons of sap, which produced 20 gallons of maple syrup.
Some of the syrup went to the members of this nascent co-op — Heiko refers to them as shareholders — for their kitchen cabinets. Some was sold at neighborhood events and farmers’ markets to support local nonprofits as well as the syrup project itself. Heiko says he didn’t earn a cent for himself. Monetizing something that requires so much acreage to yield such a relatively small amount of product is no easy task, and Heiko says money isn’t his goal.
“This is all about community-building,” he told me when I first met him in March 2021. “I’m just trying to raise awareness and educate people about what is literally in their backyard.”
One year later, this cute little maple-syrup hobby, Heiko’s pandemic project, has become a full-blown obsession that’s taken over every aspect of his life.
That much was immediately apparent when I drove to his house this past December and found what the neighbors have taken to calling “the Maple Van.” It’s an older Ford Econoline that had been converted for handicap accessibility, except now the wheelchair ramp functions as a sap ramp, perfect for lifting heavy 35-gallon barrels of sap (weighing 250 pounds each when full) into the back. Once on board, the sap is vacuum-pumped into a 275-gallon plastic tank that takes up most of the rear of the van. Heiko then drives it to a location where it can be efficiently boiled down — maple sugarers call these boiling devices “evaporators” — into maple syrup. Last winter, Stockton University, which has a growing maple-syrup program (who knew?), offered to help, and Heiko found himself making trip after trip to the South Jersey state school to have his many gallons of sap transformed into maple syrup. (This winter, he has an option closer to home.)
The Maple Van was struggling during my visit. Due to some electrical problems, Heiko had to jump-start it with a portable kit after each stop on our neighborhood tour.
“I spent the off-season identifying about 185 sugar maples around here,” Heiko says. As of early January, he had 60 under agreement and was expecting more by tapping time in early February.
One prospective tree belongs to David Anker, a sales executive for a high-end bicycle distributor. Anker moved to East Oak Lane from Roxborough about five years ago to find, right in his front yard, with its upper branches extending over Oak Lane Avenue, a once-thriving sugar maple that was near the end of its run.
“Like all living things, it has a lifespan,” Anker tells me. “We love it, but it’s just been slowly dwindling away.”
Heiko is hoping to tap Anker’s sugar maple this season before it’s turned into firewood to heat Anker’s huge Queen Anne.
“I want to give it a send-off,” Heiko says as smoke swirls from Anker’s chimney. “A maple-syrup swan song.”
Heiko’s pandemic project is now, as it turns out, also his job. Over the past few years, Stockton University has snagged grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture totaling $1 million to fund maple-syrup research and development in the region. For the school, it’s about sustainability, but also the potential development of this region’s maple syrup as a commodity, seeing as much of South Jersey is covered in maples. As part of this push, Heiko has come on board as community-engagement coordinator for Stockton’s maple-syrup program. He sees his work with maple syrup as just one piece of the larger urban forestry, agriculture and sustainability ecosystem, and he’s hoping, going forward, to increase awareness about all of it. That’s why, in September, he started a hands-on education program one day a week at Parkside’s School of the Future, where he teaches kids about maple sugaring and invites guests to talk about beekeeping, solar power and urban farming.
He’s helped create and support eight hubs — his in East Oak Lane and the rest in New Jersey — where maple-sugaring enthusiasts can bring their sap and have it boiled down into maple syrup. The East Oak Lane hub has been developed in partnership with nearby Wyncote Academy. When I visited Heiko in December, the school was awaiting the delivery of a custom 12-foot-by-20-foot shed that would soon become Heiko’s sugar shack, as they call it in the biz, housing an industrial evaporator to deal with all that sap.
That, after all, is the tricky part of the equation. Anybody can pop a tube into a sugar maple and get sap. But one tree can fill a five-gallon bucket on a good day. Imagine yourself, a hobbyist maple sugarer with, say, one tree on your property, confronted with five gallons of messy sap on a busy workday and kids to cook dinner for. You’ve got to refrigerate the stuff and then get it to the boiler before it goes rancid. To say nothing of the next day’s payload coming right behind it. And that’s with one tree. What if you have two trees? Or 10?
This sticky supply-chain issue is just what Delco resident Jack Callahan encountered last winter when he decided, like Heiko, on a whim to try tapping the sugar maple in his backyard with his three young kids. Callahan spent about $25 on equipment and soon found himself with plenty of sap, which he stuck in the fridge but ultimately ran out of time to deal with. He tossed it (sweet sorrow!) but says he’ll try again this year.
“It’s something for the kids to get excited about that isn’t electronics,” Callahan says.
As for Heiko’s kids, they’re now 11 and 13. What was once a “hero dad” scenario is now just that thing Dad won’t shut up about. The oohs and ahhs of childhood wonder have become gentle shrugs. “I think they’re a little tired of hearing me talk about maple syrup,” Heiko says.
But he won’t be deterred by tweenage ennui. At this point, he can’t be. He’s started something that’s taken on a life of its own. And even as there’s so much uncertainty in the world, the trees don’t know anything about that. Sometime this month, the sap will begin to flow.
Published as “Sweet Deal” in the February 2022 issue of Philadelphia magazine.