Across the northern United States, there is a one-month window each spring when maple syrup producers are hard at work gathering, boiling and bottling sap.

Across the northern United States, there is a one-month window each spring when maple syrup producers are hard at work gathering, boiling and bottling sap.

A family friend urged Blacklick resident Craig Richardson, a Vermont native, to start tapping the sugar maple trees on his property five years ago. Friendly neighbors have allowed him to expand his sap collection to their maples. In return, he would give them some of the finished syrup.

Richardson eventually built a 10-by-16-foot sugarhouse in his backyard, complete with a pumping station to unload gallon upon gallon of maple sap from his four-wheeler with two 50-gallon collection tanks affixed to the back.Richardson is one of about 900 maple syrup producers in Ohio, according to the Ohio Maple Producers Association.

According to Richardson, sap from his maple trees is only 2 percent sugar. To reach syrup level of more than 60-percent sugar, the sap is boiled to remove the excess water.

Richardson uses a wood-burning machine called an evaporator that funnels the sap through a series of pans and channels to boil off the water.

"It generally takes about 40 gallons of sap to produce just one gallon of syrup," Richardson said.A cloud of sweet, white steam rises to the top of the sugarhouse while the evaporator burns through log after log of firewood, usually for hours on end. The time spent boiling that much sap adds up.

"The whole family gets involved," said Richardson, whose wife, Jennifer, and three children, Eleanor, 8, Cyrus, 6, and Claire 4, help with all stages of production. "We spend a lot of time together in the sugaring house, waiting for the sap to boil. We eat our meals out here, do homework and read stories with the kids."

Although he still considers syrup-making a hobby, Richardson is no stranger to the profession. He grew up on a 500-acre family farm in Hartland, Vt., that still raises cattle and produces nearly 3,000 gallons of syrup each year via a sophisticated pipeline collection system.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Ohio produced an estimated 90,000 gallons of maple syrup in 2009. By comparison, Vermont, which led all states, produced 920,000 gallons.

"When all my college friends went to Florida for spring break, I went home to the family farm in Vermont to do some sugaring and get my syrup fix," Richardson said. "They all thought I was crazy."

This year, Richardson's 115 taps produced 26.5 gallons of syrup, down from previous years' collections of more than 30 gallons. Richardson said production levels are dependent on the weather.

"Ideal conditions for the sap to flow are warm days and cold nights," he said. "The past few weeks were too warm for the taps to flow well."

Of the 26.5 gallons of syrup, Richardson plans to keep half for his family, friends and neighbors. The other half will be sold at the Jefferson Township farmers market, which will be held on Saturdays from June through September at Jefferson Community Park.

acairns@thisweeknews.com