By Eva Potter

It’s a short and very intense season and it’s happening right now. Maple sugaring, the process of making maple syrup, is taking place all over the Northeast and Midwest – weather permitting, that is – and Randy Sprague, owner of Sprague’s Maple Farms in Portville, N.Y., knows a thing or two about making maple syrup.

Sprague began sugaring more than 40 years ago as a hobby after being inspired by visits to the Deschler Farm in Portville while still in high school. Soon, Sprague began tapping a few trees in the driveway.

He said, “It started as a hobby and I never looked back. “

During his college years, he increased production and marketed his syrup locally. The business began to build gradually over the years as he began purchasing property and renting taps from other owners. Eventually, Sprague started attending national food shows and continued to build their marketing base with wife and co-owner, Toni.

“At the same time, we would continue our production base and kept expanding right along on the maple side, until we actually got to the point we decided to do the facility here on Route 305,” he said, about the restaurant that opened in 2001 and is managed by the Spragues’ son, Adam Robinson.

The restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner Sunday through Thursday, 8 a.m.–8 p.m., and Friday and Saturday,  8 a.m.–9 p.m. Country-style dishes include breakfast items like homemade maple sausage patties, deep fried French toast, Southern-style grits, as well as traditional favorites. As a matter of fact, you can have breakfast all day! Their lunch and dinner menus include their famous roast turkey dinner made with Sprague’s homegrown turkeys, maple Bourbon Street sirloin steak, seafood entrees, sandwiches, maple desserts and more.

The building also houses their maple syrup production facilities, and since Maple Weekends are coming up soon — March 22-23 and 29-30, 10 a.m.–4 p.m. both Saturday and Sunday — it’s a great time to visit Sprague’s Maple Farms. There are always weekend activities during sugaring season, from March and into April, but during Maple Weekends your family can enjoy two special weekends learning how maple syrup is made.

“We have wagon rides that take you from the restaurant through the woods, that we have tapped and in production, to our sugar house that we have up on the hill that basically demonstrates how maple syrup has been made in the area for at least 200 years. It’s a wood-fired evaporator, open top, so everyone can see the steam and watch it boil and actually see the sugaring off process,” said Sprague. “There we also make our own cinnamon maple cake doughnuts, which are really nice. We do a sugar on snow, also known as jack wax, where you boil syrup down, pour it over ice and it turns into a taffy.”

All these delicacies are free to taste, along with a new product — maple wine — that was rolled out last fall and is featured in the restaurant.

Sprague explained, “We also are featuring our own maple Chardonnay wine you can sample (age 21 and over only). We cooperated with Flickerwood Wineries, and they helped us with a Chardonnay that they produce that used our maple syrup.”

Visitors are always welcome to take independent walking tours using guided signs through the woods during the rest of the year. Spragues also welcomes many bus tours and large groups at the facility all year long.

“For the most part, when we’re not in maple production, we’ll do demonstrations in the main facility here where the big evaporator is,” said Sprague.

The main facility processes sap from Sprague’s 30,000 taps and can handle more than 4,000 gallons of sap per hour, which makes about 80 gallons of syrup, depending on the saps sugar concentration. Their reverse osmosis evaporator removes at least 75 percent of the sap’s water content before the boiling begins, reducing production time and energy.

You can see all this happening through open-frame windows inside the restaurant building, along the long hallway leading to the dining room.

In case you are confused by the grading system, maple syrup is grouped into U.S. Grades — A comes in light, medium and dark; B is darker and has a stronger flavor and holds up well in foods.

Sap runs best with warm days and cold nights, and the predicted warming trend should keep things flowing.

Sprague said, “If we could get 20s during the night and 40s during the day, we’re gold!”

On your next visit, don’t miss the parrots in the hallway and the charming gift shop on the way out.

Visit Sprague’s Maple Farms at 1048 Route 305 in Portville, N.Y., any day of the week. Visit www.spraguesmaplefarms.com or call (716) 933-6637 for more information.