Syrup business a sweet time for Donegal couple
March 26, 2022
Bob Panichi is familiar with the entire 108-acre farm he and his wife, Debby, share in Donegal Township. He, in fact, revels in his routine of navigating the endless hills and trees by foot.
“I’ve always liked the country. I walk through the woods on a daily basis,” said the tall, angular owner of Rustic Rock Maple Farm.
The couple, in their mid-60s, have resided there since the early 1980s. They once raised sheep and goats there, while also maintaining full-time professional jobs.
The animals are gone now, and the Panichis eventually retired. Then a few years ago, Bob decided he wanted “to do something more” than hike the highlands of western Washington County.
Debby, his Bethel Park High School sweetheart, offered a suggestion one day: Let’s go to a maple syrup-related open house in West Virginia and learn what the industry is all about. They attended the event, and Bob found a sweet spot. He returned home determined to be a maple syrup producer.
And why not. The Panichis had “several thousand” maple trees on their property, available for tapping.
Refusing to waffle on their plans, the couple launched Rustic Rock Maple, a company that is in its fourth season of production. It sits along Dutch Fork Church Road, a few miles northwest of Claysville.
The Panichis’ single-source, small-batch maple syrup operation is certified organic, 100% natural and unrefined. The organic label means no chemicals are used in or near his woodlot or during processing.
“Syrup is one of the best sweeteners you can eat,” said Bob, who also manufactures maple sugar with Debby.
They sell their wares at regional coffee shops and festivals, and spring-through-autumn farmers markets, such as the weekly Main Street Farmers Market in Washington and the Original Farmers Market in Cecil Township.
Rustic Rock products also are on shelves at Trax Farms, Simmons Farm, Bedner’s Farm Market (Upper St. Clair), and Amish Touch and the Marketplace at Emerald Valley in Washington.
The couple’s business opened before COVID-19 arrived in Southwestern Pennsylvania, and initially sold in bulk by the barrel – although not locally. That changed early into the pandemic, when schools, restaurants and other businesses were shuttered. “Bulk sales dried up (at that time),” Bob lamented.
Rustic Rock is believed to be one of two certified maple syrup producers in Washington County. The other is Rossell’s Maple LLC, which 27-year-old Jobie Rossell started in 2015 in West Pike Run Township, where it is still based.
“A lot of people do it in their back yards,” Bob Panichi added, chuckling.
He and Debby devote 45 acres to their operation – and many hours. Although maple syrup making is not a year-round undertaking, it can be painstaking over the course of several months.
“When you look at a bottle of maple syrup, you think it’s an easy process,” Bob said. “There’s more to it than that. Understandably, some people actually think syrup comes directly out of trees.
“We have two people running a 2,000-tap operation, which is pretty much our limit.”
Bob and a forester friend begin the process in late January, by placing taps in trees, generally a four-day procedure. This is a time when temperatures may fluctuate, falling below and rising above freezing in the same day, enhancing the flow of sap, which is eventually converted into syrup.
A vacuum pump pulls the sap through 44,000 feet of plastic tubing to the Sugar House for processing.
A huge amount of water is separated from the sap during manufacturing. Depending on weather, Bob and Debby collect 30,000 to 60,000 gallons of sap that ultimately boil down to 500 to 900 gallons of maple syrup.
The owners operate a number of pieces of machinery, which are semi-automated. They include vacuums, tanks, a releaser, an evaporator, a filtering system, a reverse osmosis machine and a bottling machine.
Sap is boiled and reduced to maple syrup at about 219 degrees. At that point, the syrup is filtered and stored in a barrel, to be bottled at a later date. When bottling occurs, the syrup is reheated and refiltered, and bottled at 195 degrees.
So, no, it isn’t an easy process.
Debby and Bob Panichi enjoy it, though. Their operation engages them. It is a vocation as well as an avocation – and an education, to be sure.
“I’m only four years into this, so I’m not an expert,” Bob Panichi said. “There’s something to learn in the maple syrup world every day.”
For more information, or to schedule a group tour of the maple business, visit rusticrockmaple.com.