In late winter and early spring, Ohio weather is mercurial—so bitter overnight that the ground is crunchy at dawn; then the sun comes up and everything’s a sea of mud by noon. That’s the kind of weather that Dan Berger needs, because those roller-coaster temperatures keep the sap running. And rising sap is central to life at Maple Grove Farm in Lebanon, Ohio, along with “these big, beautiful trees,” he says.
Berger makes maple syrup—465 gallons of it in 2013, produced during weeks of 16-hour days spent hiking through the woods, lugging buckets, boiling and bottling. It’s hands-on, labor-intensive work. But that’s what he was aiming for when he retired from practicing law. “The older I got, the less I wanted to sit behind a desk,” he says.
Berger spent more than 30 years focused on real estate law at the Cincinnati offices of Thompson Hine. But in 2000, at the age of 55, he started to ease out of the practice and devote more time to the farm that he and his wife, Susan, had bought a few years before. They were already growing organic produce, and he figured he’d build up that business. Then someone suggested he tap the two dozen or so maple trees that surround his house. Now he collects sap from 800 taps on four farms, including his own. He sells the resulting syrup largely by word of mouth and at a Cincinnati farmers’ market. And word gets around. Recently a Californian sent him a snapshot of a bottle of Maple Grove syrup on the table of an L.A. restaurant.
As Berger describes it, making his signature product is genuinely a sweet feat. “You’re walking around in the woods in late winter,” he says. “I love that.” He still collects sap by hand (there are large commercial producers who use tubing and vacuum pumps to expedite the process), and he still processes it the traditional way, boiling off almost 98 percent of the water from the sap with an open, woodfired evaporator in an outdoor shed. “The room is steamy, it’s sweet, and your senses are going crazy,” he says. “And out comes this wonderful product that people get such enjoyment from. It’s such a gift.”
If it seems an unlikely second career for an attorney, it’s only one of several for the former history major. He’s also a self-taught chef who runs a successful private catering business. And he has a rock band that plays local gigs. Music was a passion he put on hold during his corporate law career. Now—why not?
Before becoming a lawyer, Berger served in the Peace Corps, teaching in the West Indies in a poor fishing village on the island of Saint Lucia. “It was a pivotal experience,” he says. “In the West Indies, life does not rush around. You have fun and enjoy every day.” It’s a lesson he practices a lot this time of year—as long as the nights are cold, the days are warm, and the sap is running.