The old saying “barking up the wrong tree’’ does not apply to Travis and Joyce Miller of Clarke County. The retired couple is enjoying the sweet taste of success with their Falling Bark Farm hickory syrup, which is made using the bark of hickory trees. They are one of only a handful of producers nationwide who make and sell the alternative to maple syrup.
“We were looking for a product to take to farmers’ markets” and sell for supplemental income, said Travis Miller. He has 30 years of experience in the retail food industry and had begun experimenting with smoked salts. Learning more about hickory smoking led to the discovery of hickory syrup.
He and his wife began foraging in the woods for hickory bark and came to prefer shagbark hickory, which sheds naturally.
Through trial and error, they developed a process of cleaning and roasting the bark, extracting the liquid, aging it, filtering it and blending it with turbinado sugar to produce their syrup. The syrup comes in several flavors: original, vanilla, brandy, brandy/vanilla and a reserve cask hickory syrup aged in rye whiskey barrels. Joyce Miller said some people have told her the syrup, often described as smoky, earthy or woodsy, reminds them “of a campfire or Grandma’s cabin.”
The Millers’ product has moved beyond local farmers’ markets into Whole Foods and The Fresh Market grocery stores and gift shops at Mount Vernon, Monticello and other historic landmarks. It also has earned the Virginia’s Finest mark of quality. With their product in 160 outlets, the Millers have limited their own foraging and now turn to hickory bark suppliers to keep up with the demand.
“This is a great example of a true value-added project,” said Chris Cook, assistant director of rural development for the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation. “The Millers have taken a product with little or no value and, with a little ingenuity, turned it into a highly sought-after valuable product.”