During their engagement in 2000, Joseph Burkett, BA ’99, and his then-fiancée Alethea (Hepler), BA ’99, were living an hour apart. Both had moved home to Pennsylvania after graduating from the University of Dallas. Alethea worked in her family’s lumber business, and Joseph worked on his family’s property. It was winter in Pennsylvania, and the couple would meet up to roast marshmallows, read, talk and make maple syrup.
After tapping 20 trees that first year, what started as a hobby during their engagement became a thriving business during their marriage.
The Burketts’ home area of Pennsylvania is known for a variety of maples. After marrying in 2001, the couple acquired their first “sugarbush,” a piece of property with a high concentration of maple trees. In the fall of 2001, they had 1,000 taps. Joseph was just 24 at the time, and since then, he and Alethea have learned a lot on their journey together.
The couple realized they could maximize revenue by bottling and selling the syrup themselves. Today, Joseph does the bottling, marketing and customer service for their company, Old State Farms — not to mention hauling and boiling the sap. His oldest sons help chop wood for the wood-fired evaporator, and his oldest daughters assist with packaging, labeling and shipping the product during the busy season. At the end of each season, they remove the spout from each tree. They drill a new hole with a new spout each year. It is a short but busy season often packed with snow, rain and mud.
Today, the Burketts have 3,500 taps.
Joseph describes his role at Old State Farms as “full-time-ish.” The couple is still involved in the family lumber business, but their maple syrup company has expanded over the past 20 years. Along the way, they developed a website and picked up several retail stores that sell their products.
“As companies grow,” Joseph explains, “there is a temptation to become more efficient.” So far, at least where the syrup-making process is concerned, the Burketts have resisted the urge.
One thing that sets Old State Farms apart is the family’s continued use of a wood-fired evaporator. While other companies may seek to boil faster and speed up the process, the Burketts want to maintain the flavor profile of the syrup in the boiling process. The wood-fired evaporator boils more slowly than alternatives that run on fuel oil, giving the flavors more time to mellow and develop.
When asked about his favorite Old State Farms products, Joseph picks the maple sugar candy and rum barrel-aged syrup, which has “a mellow, caramel or butterscotch flavor.” He also recommends ginger-infused maple syrup for tea. The chipotle pepper-infused maple syrup is perfect for grilling fish, chicken or vegetables. (By the way, the company provides free recipes for pairing and using their products.)
Joseph said his time at UD shaped him, his wife and their company. He went through the traditional four-year UD experience, including a fall semester in Rome. His wife transferred to UD with two years of college remaining, and both graduated in 1999. Though they began dating in college, the couple had known each other since they were twelve years old, when their parents became friends.
Through their time at UD, they developed lifelong friendships of their own, friends they still keep up with today. What’s more, both agree that their time at UD prepared them well for the responsibility of raising and educating their children.
“The UD environment fosters discussion and debate, both in and outside the classroom,” Joseph said.
Joseph recalls how growing up on a farm taught him to be resourceful and figure things out independently. He believes that the liberal arts education offered at UD complemented his experience and further developed his ability to think, reason, write and solve problems.
“It helps you be unafraid to try new things and to teach yourself,” Joseph said. “It helps you to always be ready to learn.”