For Derby maple syrup producers, church is a priority
“In our world” going to Mass is a priority, said Steve Wheeler, an owner of Jed’s Maple Products in Derby.
The world he and his wife and business co-owner, Amy, live in is one in which faith and family are essential, caring for the environment is important and business is conducted with integrity — all in a bucolic setting in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom.
The parishioners of Mater Dei Parish’s St. Edward the Confessor Church in Derby Line began their maple production business in 2000, naming it after their young son. (Steve also owns Jonah’s Maple Supply, named after their second son.)
Jed’s had begun as a hobby for the homeschooling parents. “Steve said, ‘Let’s tap a few trees in the back yard. We can see how that worked out,” Amy said with a smile as she stood in the retail shop on Derby Pond Road.
A fifth-generation sugar maker, Steve wanted to share the joy of sugaring with his family. At the time he was an engineering manager for a local manufacturing plant; his wife — whom he met while they were students at the University of Vermont — was trained as a physical therapist.
He remembers his father and grandfather making enough maple syrup for the immediate family’s use with enough to sell to a few other family members and friends.
What began for Steve and Amy as a hobby — they and their sons have also earned black belts in Tae Kwon Do — resulted in the sale of 130 gallons of syrup. “I said to Steve, ‘I really think we are on to something,’” Amy recalled. The next year they leased some sugar bushes, and “that’s when things really took off” for the business, Steve said.
They have since bought more land on which to tap trees and branched out to produce a variety of specialty foods like maple balsamic vinegar, maple cream and maple candy. They tap 7,400 trees on 120 contiguous acres.
“My hobby got in the way of my work, so I had to quit work,” Steve said, but he and his wife did not quit their involvement in their parish. Amy is a lector, and Steve is a member of the choir, pianist, church coordinator and member of the Knights of Columbus.
Jed’s is not usually open on Sundays: “That’s why God gave us commandments,” Steve said, referring to keeping holy the Lord’s Day. Even when the store is open two Sundays a year for open houses, hours are “fashioned around church” so workers can get to Mass.
Their faith informs the Wheelers’ commitment to the environment and the quality foods they produce. Their syrup is organic, and their other products are natural. “We drew a line in the sand with GMOs,” said Steve, a Derby native. We wanted our boys to be healthy and not have unknown chemicals working in their bodies.”
Plus, said Amy who grew up in Bennington, they wanted their family and other families to have good food that was easy to use. How about maple sweet and sour dressing on rice for a quick dinner, Steve suggested as an example. It’s a simple ingredient “without all kinds of (artificial) stuff in it.”
He wants people — customers from throughout Vermont and the world thanks to a distribution system and online ordering — to feel good about what they buy from Jed’s, which has four full-time employees with additional part-time staff during the busy holiday season.
The retail shop built in 2012 is open Monday through Saturday year round. “Sunday we take the day off. That’s God’s Day,” Steve said as he stood in the shop that is and decorated with numerous county fair ribbons and a certificate as a local newspaper’s readers’ choice winner for maple syrup producer. Adjoining it are the sugar house, a commercial kitchen, storage, and a shipping and receiving area.
“The older I get, the more I prefer to be in the woods” where he often has conversations with God, Steve said. “I get to see the sunset behind the mountains, and I think, ‘How can this not have been created by God?’.”
Amy also enjoys being in the woods, where she often walks and recites the rosary. The woods, she said, are calming and “you feel close to God out there in nature.”
Some years the maple production is better than others, but Steve always trusts in God: “Everything is part of God’s plan.”
For more information on Jed’s Maple Products, go to jedsmaple.com.
—Originally published in the Summer 2023 issue of Vermont Catholic magazine.