Gabe Karns

Gabe Karns, a professor at The Ohio State University, "taps" a maple tree on Saturday at the OSU-Mansfield campus.

MANSFIELD -- Gabe Karns grew up and started his college career at North Carolina State University in the heart of ACC basketball territory. He earned his doctorate at Auburn University, where SEC football is king.

It's somewhat needless to say, but the college professor has learned to adapt and adjust.

But the single biggest change has come since he arrived at The Ohio State University in 2013, turning his Ph.D. in wildlife sciences into something more in tune with seeing the broader picture of all available resources in the forests, woodlands and wetlands.

That's why Karns, whose doctoral dissertation was on "Spatiotemporal Breeding Strategies within a High Density, Male-skewed White-tailed Deer Population," was stomping around the snowy, muddy woods Saturday on the northwest side of the 600-acre campus at OSU-Mansfield.

He and his team were prepping to make maple syrup, using about 1,200 maple trees in a 20-acre area.

It's been an interesting journey for the 36-year-old Karns, whose southern accent from growing up in North Carolina clearly comes through, as does his passion for the work and research.

Simply put, this is not really what he came to Columbus to do. But since beginning his career at OSU as a post-doctoral researcher in the Terrestrial Wildlife Ecology Laboratory in 2013, Karns has expanded his own views of the outdoors.

"I am going to blame it on my students," he said Saturday with a laugh, referring to Capstone students who came to OSU-Mansfield with him and began to ask questions about the maple trees on the campus, as far back as 2015.

"This foray into maple syrup has resulted in an interesting twist on looking at woodlands and forests, not just as places for timber and wildlife management," he said.

"Maple syrup ... morel mushrooms ... ginseng ... it's all part of a growing awareness at the university and even broader that there is more value and more resources in a forest than we have given it credit for.

"It's been kind of a strange twist, but well worth it," Karns said.

Sugar level

Gabe Karns uses a monitoring device to check the sugar level from sap that just came out of a tree at OSU-Mansfield.

There are two primary things happening in the woods at OSU-Mansfield right now, according to Karns.

First, he and the students are tapping 1,200 maple trees for their third year of sap production. In the first two years, the program has produced about 20,000 gallons of sap annually, which translates into 400 to 500 gallons of syrup.

That syrup is "official" Ohio State University Maple Syrup, sold in quantities ranging from half-pint glass containers for $12 to half-gallon jugs for $48. Orders are accepted online here.

Proceeds go back into the program, including acting as seed money for grants to expand research into the university's overall Ecolab projects, which include the popular micro farm projects that have taken root in the Mansfield area through fellow OSU Professor Kent "Kip" Curtis.

One such three-year grant through the U.S. Department of Agriculture is allowing Karns, his assistants and students to monitor sap production in red and silver maple trees, which have largely been ignored over the years as producers focus on more profitable sugar maples, the "gold standard" of syrup production.

"I would argue the research project is more important than the production," Karns said.

Karns said the red and silver maples historically have not produced sap with as high a sugar content, which requires more boiling time to produce syrup. He and his team are tapping about 75 of the red and silver maples for the study.

Improved technology, including reverse osmosis, has improved both the yield and the sugaring potential of the non-sugar maples, Karns said.

"We are in year one of a three-year grant to do individual tree research with the other maples, monitoring daily sap yields. We can measure each tree by volume output and the sugar percentage on a daily basis," Karns said.

"With (improved technology), the low-sugar content in the sap is not that big an obstacle to profitability," he said.

Syrup shack

Lines feed maple sap into a "syrup shack" at the OSU-Mansfield campus.

The "lines" remain up in the woods year round and Karns and his team each year about this time re-tap the trees, a process that began Friday and should be completed by the end of the day Saturday.

The length of the "maple syrup season" depends on the weather. Karns said ideal weather would be daytime highs in the low to mid 40s and sinking down into the 20s at night.

The lines, save for those coming off of trees being used in the research project, feed into the syrup shack via a vacuum created by a sizeable engine.

Collection devices for sap

Seen here are some of the homemade collection devices used to collect sap from silver and red maple trees at OSU-Mansfield.

Sap from the research trees feed into homemade collection devices that Karns said resemble "potato guns." It can then be collected and measure daily.

The sap from the main lines collects in a tank inside the shack and is then pumped to a large tank in a parking lot accessible through a brisk walk on a snow-covered trail.

As Karns and his team checked on the tank inside the syrup shack on Saturday, it was clear technology in syrup production has come a long way from the days of tapping a tree and hanging a bucket beneath it.

Collection tank

The collection tank fills inside the syrup shack on Saturday.

The engine creating the vacuum hummed and multiple valves were opened and closed during the process.

"Just a bunch of science nerds making syrup," one of Karns' assistants said with a laugh.

It's certainly not Karns envisioned when he wrote his master's thesis at North Carolina State on the "Impact of Hunting on Adult Male White-tailed Deer Behavior."

But the truth is, Karns remains on the hunt -- it's just a wider field of view now.


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City editor. 30-year plus journalist. Husband. Father of 3 grown sons and also a proud grandpa. Prior military journalist in U.S. Navy, Ohio Air National Guard. -- Favorite quote: "Where were you when the page was blank?"