By Patti Gartland, GSDC President
April in Minnesota used to be my least favorite month. It’s that awkward time of the year when winter is behind us (usually) and we’re anxious for our summer season fun to begin. Outdoor conditions are typically wet and dreary. But, that all changed for my husband and me about 8 years ago when we were introduced to a new hobby: maple syruping! Instead, we now await April in great anticipation. Will this year yield a record-breaking harvest? Or, perhaps it will be a heart-breaking low harvest (like 2018 has turned out to be).
Our ‘sugar bush’ is located in Cass County on 33 acres near Boy Lake. It’s a quick 20 minute drive from our family cabin. Our first season entailed 17 taps that we borrowed from the friends who introduced us to the art of syruping. Our harvest has grown to 60 taps that are scattered over an approximate 10 acre section of the site. The scope of a harvest is heavily dependent on weather. Optimal conditions are above freezing and sunny during the day with nighttime temperatures dropping below freezing.
The sap collected from the trees is converted to sweet syrup (aka liquid gold) through a simple but time intensive evaporation process. We cook it over a wood-fired cooker built (and routinely modified for efficiency improvements) by my husband. A rule of thumb is 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup, but the ratio with our harvests ranges between 25 and 38 gallons of sap to produce 1 gallon of syrup. Our boil rate is generally 5 to 6 gallons per hour. That translates to a 50-gallon boil resulting in approximately 1.5 gallons of syrup, consuming a 10-hour day, not including the finishing boil, filtering and bottling processes.
Syruping requires a good amount of physical work. The sap drips into 3.5 gallon sacs hung from the tap on each tree. The sacs are emptied into 5 gallon buckets and transported (by foot, sled, or utility trailer – depending on the snow conditions we’re working in) back to the evaporator. Over the course of an hour, about 5 gallons of sap is slowly trickled into the evaporator pan. Deadfall from the property is our fuel source which means lots of wood cutting and splitting. Keeping a strong, rolling boil in the evaporator pan requires careful fire tending.
But, we’ve also found our syruping harvest to be quite the social attraction. More often than not, we’re joined by family and friends who find the entire process quite intriguing. There’s typically plenty of camping style food and beverage, refreshing walks through the woods collecting sap, sampling the ‘near syrup’ towards the end of the day, and retreating back to the cabin for some cozy time in the cabin or around the campfire. And our guest helpers always relish the rewards of heading home with a supply of “2 Saps Maple Syrup.”
If you’ve never been introduced to the process of harvesting maple sap and converting it into the delightful sweetness of maple syrup, I highly encourage it! While this year’s harvest is coming to an end, consider attending next year’s annual Maple Syrup Festival hosted by Saint John’s Abbey and Saint John’s University at the Abbey Arboretum in February/March/April (Find details at Saint John’s Maple Syrup).
For me, this quote by John Burroughs conveys the spirit of the season:
“A sap-run is the sweet goodbye of winter. It is the fruit of the equal marriage of sun and frost.” (Signs & Season, 1886)