BLUE GRASS – Doug Puffenbarger is doing the best he can, but doesn’t want to disappoint anyone.
He’s holding down the family farm outside of Monterey, driving a school bus for Highland County schools and taking care of both his parents — all while trying to prepare for the 61st Highland County Maple Festival next month.
But this year, one thing will be missing from their camp: the maple doughnuts.
Doug said he’s sad they won’t be offering doughnuts this year, but his days are so packed he’s barely had time to tap the maple trees.
Doug, his wife Terri and his parents Ivan and Sarah “Sis” Puffenbarger, all run the family sugar camp called Puffenbarger Sugar Orchard in Blue Grass. They’ve had the sugar camp in operation for the past 100 years.
The Puffenbargers have been part of the Maple Festival since its inception and the farm dates back to Doug’s grandfather Melvin, who made maple syrup.
Ivan’s health has taken a downturn. He has fluid in his feet and legs so it’s hard for him to get around, Doug said.
“He can’t walk,” Doug said.
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Then this past December Doug’s mother fell and broke her hip.
“She’s usually the one who does all the doughnuts,” Doug said. “She said it was just too much to try to do this year.”
Before the health ailments, the Puffenbargers started making doughnuts 25 years ago and they sort of just took off.
“It got bigger,” Doug said. “They got so popular that we had to do something. So we got a house trailer and converted it into a place to make the doughnuts and that’s where we’ve been ever since.”
If you’ve ever been to the Maple Festival in Highland County, the one thing that you notice are the extremely large lines for the maple doughnuts. They’re never ending. It’s one of the go-to treats to get at the festival, next to the maple syrup, of course.
There are other places to purchase the doughnuts at the festival, like at the Mill Gap Ruritan doughnut trailer in Monterey. They’re scattered around the whole festival either in food truck trailers, country stores or other sugar camps.
His days start early feeding the cows. It takes two and a half hours to feed the cows, which he does several times a day. Then after that he might have an hour to do other chores before he has to go back out and drive the school bus. Then it all repeats in the afternoon.
“It’s just too much,” he said. “It just makes it tough.”
Luckily, the Puffenbarger’s community have been incredibly kind and helpful. Neighbors and friends have been opening up trees for them to help get them started.
“I have some trees open. I have some good friends and neighbors who have helped,” he said. “I’m just trying to make it.”
Ronnie and Sandy Moyers of Laurel Fork Sapsuckers out of Hightown have been lending a helping hand to the Puffenbargers. Their daughter Missy Moyers-Jarrells said she hopes people will still stop by the sugar camp during the festival despite the lack of doughnuts.
“I am sure the Puffenbarger family is struggling with the idea of not selling doughnuts this year,” she said. “As a teenager I grew up helping in the doughnut shack each year and eventually worked my way up to helping Doug fry. Not only does this effect their family and their farm but also the people they employed during the festival and of course the consumer.”
Moyers-Jarrells said Ivan Puffenbarger would most likely tell you a “sugarin’ story” if you stopped by.
“One that always sticks in my mind is as a young child his father would let him ride the horses, so he would be up out of the way, as they pulled the sled of sugar water from the woods to the camp. In my opinion a story like that will leave you more satisfied than any doughnut ever could,” she said. “My parents, Ronnie and Sandy Moyers, believe in helping your neighbor and know the importance of the Maple Festival to family farms and the overall economy of the county. Any time they can lend a helping hand they jump to it.”
He’s also behind on prepping the trees. Usually, his father clears up the fallen tree limbs but hasn’t gotten to it this time because he can’t get around.
“Now I got to do it all myself,” he said.
Things will be limited at the sugar camp this year, he said. Not only because of the health issues with his parents, but due to the fluctuation in temperatures which causes the sugar water to stop flowing.
“Production is going to be way off,” Doug said. “The past couple years it’s been down anyway because we’ve been having a couple weeks in February where the temperatures got up in the 60s and that just stops them. The weather’s got to be right.
“I may have a couple hundred gallons of syrup made. If I did that would tickle me,” he added.
So far Doug has about 400 to 500 trees tapped at his family camp. He needs to start on 1,000 trees in another leased spot.
The last few years, the camp usually makes around 200 to 300 gallons of syrup. In a good year, they can make as much as 700 to 800 gallons.
“This year we are way behind and have bottled less than 50 gallons as of today,” Terri said
But, he’s grateful for his neighbors and fellow sugar camp owners.
“We help each other out and I had no idea that he was going to do it. There’s some really good people here,” he said.
It seems like one thing after another for the Puffenbargers. Machinery has been breaking down and they can’t afford to hire on big crews to do major work. It’s hard to to keep things afloat.
Doug has been working the cattle operation on a few hundred acres with a couple hundred head of cow. In the summer they have land that they make hay on.
“I just try to do what I can and have different people volunteer to help,” he said. “I do what I can and take one day at a time.”
But Doug and Terri are still pushing through. It’s tradition.
“Maple Festival time means lots of hard work to prepare and get ready,” Terri said. “There are many late hours gathering water, boiling and bottling our syrup. Supper is usually something on the go while we go gather water at another property up the road from us.”
Terri said she tries to help in any way she can either by bottling the syrup and selling products at their sugar camp during the festival.
“We don’t get to tour around the county because our time is spent in our camp greeting customers, giving tours, and selling our syrup and maple doughnuts,” Terri said. “This year will be a lot different without our homemade maple doughnuts. We will miss them just as much as anyone else.”
Doug said he may not have enough syrup to go around for everyone this year, which worries him.
“I know there’s going to be a lot of people going to be disappointed,” Doug said. “There’s just too much going on with Mom and Dad’s health issues.”
To find out more about the Puffenbarger Sugar Orchard visit PuffenbargerSugarOrchard.com. The sugar camp is located at 17 Maple Sugar Lane in Blue Grass.
The Highland County Maple Festival is March 9 through 10 and 16 through 17. For more information visit Highlandcounty.org/events/maple-festival/.
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