This article was originally published by the Watershed Cafe in Osceola, Wis. Reprinted with permission.
The maple trees in the St. Croix River Valley tell a sweet story of the neighborly efforts of local resident Don Hansen, owner of Don’s Sugar Shack in Taylors Falls, MN, and the community of many. (Note: Don is also board chair of the St. Croix River Association.)
Through the partnership of local land owners, and the hard work of youth and families from area churches, thousands of gallons of sap are collected to produce local pure maple syrup for consumers to enjoy. In addition, the proceeds of the syrup sales are donated to provide support for the youth and families of participating churches.
Curious about the production of pure syrup, I met with Don to learn more about this unique endeavor.
When I arrived at Don’s Sugar Shack, Don and his brother-in-law, Richard, were just returning from tapping trees. With their jeans soaked up to their knees, I could see that plodding through the snow that day had been hard work for them.
“We tapped about 900 trees,” Don specified. “We usually set out about 2,500 taps from different sites in the St. Croix River Valley.”
This labor-intensive task includes drilling the holes, tapping in the taps, hanging pails, and putting covers on them. If he was tired and cold from his long day in the woods, Don didn’t show it as he good-naturedly described sap collecting.
“Once you put the taps in, sap almost immediately starts to drip like a faucet. On an average run, a 3-gallon pail will be full in 24 hours. We can collect anywhere from 14,000 to 20,000 gallons of sap in a season,” he said patiently.
Not only is tapping trees hard work, it’s also unpredictable and based on nature’s springtime variations. The trees only produce sap in the spring, and typically the warm days and cold nights in March are good indicators of the sap season’s start.
“March 15 is usually my milestone for tapping, but it’s not an exact science. It varies from year to year,” Don explained. “The warming of the climate, and the different changes in temperatures, changes the tapping.”
The sap flow varies each day, and each season is different. Don mentioned that one year, sap started running in February; another year, it was so warm the sap didn’t run at all that season.
The sapping season is not only variable, it’s also a short season. “When you drill a hole in the tree, it’s like starting a stop-watch ticking that’s got a 3-week window on it, and then that’s kind of it for tapping” Don emphasized. With the short-time frame for sapping and the hard work involved, there’s a sense of urgency in the collection process.
St. Croix sweetness
Although it can be a grueling and inconsistent task, the sap from the maple trees in the St. Croix River Valley is worth the effort. This region’s sap is some of the best and sweetest at 4% sugar content. In other regions like the Northeast, another location known for its maple syrup production, the sugar content is between 1.8% to 2%. Don explained that the types of trees tapped, along with the size of the tree’s canopy, causes variations in the sugar content. Our region’s large sugar maple trees produce high sugar content sap.
Community members from First Evangelical Lutheran Church in Taylors Falls, MN, and Peace Lutheran Church in Dresser, WI, provide essential support for collecting all the sap.
“My wife Sydney and I provide the capital, equipment, and the infrastructure, while the kids and families provide the labor,” Don said gratefully. “The community provides 75-85% of the labor in the collection of the sap, which is big. Without that labor force to go bucket to bucket to collect, we couldn’t do any of it.”
Through email communications with the congregation members, Don keeps people informed on sap collecting days. Everybody shows up when they can, and each day is different. But when the sap is flowing, a crew of community members is there to help, showing up at the first collection site and traveling to each of the other 5 locations in the St. Croix River Valley.
With his great sense of humor, Don described the transportation scene saying with a laugh, “The first couple of times we did this, it was like a caravan. We needed police escort, we needed traffic control! It looked like a parade!” After that, they developed a better system with car-pooling, and the process gets more efficient each season.
Last year, with the help of the Church community, they collected 17,000 gallons of sap, carried one bucket at a time, and made 538 gallons of syrup.
Living his dream
The process of turning sap into maple syrup at Don’s Sugar Shack is remarkable. Once the sap is collected, Don runs the sap through a process called reverse osmosis, which concentrates the sap from 4% sugar to 15% sugar. From there, the sap goes through a wood-fired evaporator and comes out as syrup. The syrup then goes through a filter press to a bottler, where bottles are filled one at a time.
Then members, friends, and families from Peace Lutheran Church and First Evangelical Lutheran Church sell the pure maple syrup. All proceeds from syrup sales support youth and family programming at both churches.
A retired hydrologist, Don is now living out his childhood dream.
“I read a book when I was in the second grade about the pioneers collecting sap and making syrup, and then throwing the syrup on the snow to make candy. That stuck in my head for a long time,” Don reflected. “When I was in my early 40s, I saw an opportunity and decided to try it.”
In 1999, Don started collecting sap from 30 trees in the Taylors Falls neighborhood. Using a flat pan and a fuel oil barrel cut in half, he cooked sap to make syrup outside in the elements. “At that point, I decided I needed to do something to make this system better, to make it fun again,” Don stated. “When I upgraded the equipment with the reverse osmosis system, we saved a lot of labor hours. We went from cooking 36 hours straight to 5 hours, and instead of burning 16 cords of wood, we burn 4. Now that’s fun!” Don said with a grin.
Updating the equipment, reconfiguring the Sugar Shack, and obtaining a Minnesota Wholesale Food Producer license opened new doors for Don and the community. Starting out small with tapping 30 trees in Taylors Falls to using 2,500 buckets to collect sap in six locations throughout the St. Croix River Valley, this maple syrup endeavor has grown considerably over the course of 18 years.
“Last year, we had about 800 gallons of syrup to give away. It’s benefiting a larger community,” Don said in his kind and gentle way. “There’s a lot of joy in that!”
The Watershed Café is proud to partner with Don’s Sugar Shack, featuring local and sustainable maple syrup collected from the trees in the St. Croix River Valley through the efforts and dedication of community members in the area. All syrup proceeds benefit the youth of Peace Lutheran Church and First Evangelical Lutheran Church.
For more information about Don’s Sugar Shack, visit tfmaple.com and read Don’s blog to experience the day-to-day variations in the season’s sapping. Visit Peace Lutheran Church’s Facebook page to learn more about their day-to-day experiences collecting sap.
About the author: Summer Kelly is a local gardener and plant-enthusiast with a passion for marketing and environmental sustainability. Freelance marketing for The Watershed Cafe fuels that focus!