A Sweet Venture

By Grace Wyler

Rich Berg is, by his own admission, a farmer trapped in an insurance agent's body.

The 42-year-old Boardman resident has spent more than a decade as a salesman. But he recently began selling a very different kind of product: his own.

Berg is the mastermind behind Pancake Maples, a new maple-syrup venture that has had swift success on the local farmer's market circuit.

The operation is based at the Pancake Tree Farm, a 132-acre plot of forest that the Berg family owns on Pancake Clarkson Road.

The property, purchased by Berg's father in 1993, belonged to the American Tree Farm System, an organization whose members must meet certain sustainable foresting standards, which combine reforestation, management and harvesting.

Pancake Tree Farm has never been a working farm, although the property has a large cluster of sugar maple trees.

But in 2008, Berg, disturbed by rising childhood obesity and eager to try his hand at farming, decided to literally tap into the land's resources for a natural source of sweetness.

Berg brought together a group of neighboring farmers, who pooled their sugar-maple sap to make pure Ohio maple syrup.

The syrup has since been picked up by Whole Foods market in Pittsburgh, and is highly sought after at farmers markets in Cleveland and Youngstown.

The popularity of Pancake Maples products has grown so quickly, Berg said he is unable to meet his customers' demand. He plans to build a "sugar shack" on the farm, which would enable him to make the syrup on site.

He added that he hopes to take part in the shared-use kitchen incubator that some Youngstown business people have suggested starting up in the former Penguin Pub building on Elm Street. The startup would provide the space and equipment needed to expand Pancake Maples' granola business, Berg said.

"I have so much demand that I have to expand," he said. "I can't keep up with my customers, so if I don't grow, then I'll die."

But the maple-syrup business is only the beginning for the Pancake Tree Farm, he said.

The property has become an experiment in "permaculture," a theory of sustainable food production based on the design of natural ecosystems.

Berg has started to plant the seeds that he hopes will turn the property into a "seven-layer forest garden," designed to produce a variety of food with minimal human intervention.

"It's a natural system," Berg said. "You have to be actively involved, but you plant things that work together."

The "food forest" mirrors the property's woodland ecosystem, but substitutes in plants that produce food for human consumption, he said.

"The plants will feed off of each other," he said. "You never have to replant or fertilize — you plant enough so that if something doesn't work out, something grows in its place."

The sugar maples will form part of the canopy of the food forest, along with existing hickory trees. Berg recently planted chestnut and pecan trees, which will join the canopy when they are full-grown.

The second layer of the forest, the understory, will be dominated by the pawpaw, Ohio's state fruit. Berg, a regular at the state's annual pawpaw festival, already produces a significant crop of pawpaws on the farm. He hopes to plant more of the small, clustered trees, which flower the continent's largest indigenous edible fruit.

Berg has also planted persimmon trees for the garden's understory layer, and is learning to grow kiwi and peach trees.

"In just a few years, I should have enough fruit to start selling all of it at farmers markets," he said.

After a shrub layer of various berry bushes, the herb layer of the forest will be largely made up of ramps.

The wild spring onion, a staple in Appalachian cooking, has become increasingly popular among high-end chefs, Berg said. He has already planted 15 experimental ramp plots, and hopes the invasive species will soon cover 30 acres of forest, under the sugar maples.

"Chefs are fighting over these now," he said. "I could sell these for $40 a pound."

Flowering ground covers, such as strawberry and violet plants, and edible vines make up the final two layers of the garden.

Forest gardens, based on an agricultural model commonly found in India, can feed "millions of people for hundreds of years," Berg said.

"This is going to be here for hundreds of years," he said. "I just wanted to grow something — I didn't think I could grow all of this in my own backyard."

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