Sweet Success

This past January, an east coast forestry tradition made its way into the Marshall County Conservation woodlands: maple syrup production.

Many people associate maple syrup making with the state of Vermont, which does in fact lead the United States in syrup production. However, only about 6 percent of syrup produced in North America comes from the “Green Mountain State.” Instead, Canada is the real home of where most authentic maple syrup produced. Iowa is on the western border for this practice, but it is not a new practice to the state. Historical records trace maple sugar back to the indigenous peoples of North American, where they would boil the sap of maple trees down to produce sugar. Often times they would trade this product with pioneers who longed for the sweet but expensive treat of real sugar. Pioneers more than likely learned from the Native Americans and although the equipment has become more efficient, the process of making maple syrup has not changed.

The process is simple and extremely rewarding, albeit time-consuming. First, trees are tapped in late February to early March or whenever daytime temperatures consistently rise above freezing and nighttime lows are below freezing. A small hole is drilled into the side of a maple tree and a spile or tap is inserted to help funnel the sap out of the tree and into a collecting container. The sap is then collected and cooked down to produce the sweetest and most gratifying maple syrup one could imagine. I am not talking about the corn syrup flavored with maple extract that comes from the grocery store in a log-cabin shaped container, but true, straight from the tree, nothing added but hard work, real maple syrup.

There are a few things that a person must take into consideration when taking on this “simple” process. First, not all maple trees are created equal. Depending on the species, location, health, diameter, crown size, and other factors unknown to us, different trees will produce different quantities and quality of sap.

Secondly, unpredictable weather in early spring has the tendency to throw us some wicked curveballs, ranging from 70-degree days in February to back into the 20s in April (all true thus far in 2017). These wild swings in temperature can fuel your trees’ sap production, or the lack thereof, in any given year. And keep in mind that if that famous Ground Hog from Punxatawney doesn’t see his shadow on Feb. 2, your sap collecting days may soon be over because once the buds begin to swell, the syrup takes on a decidedly unappealing “buddy” flavor.

Finally, sap is a perishable item. Cooking down sap as soon as possible is important to preventing bacterial growth. You must either find a way to keep your raw sap cool, or else begin cooking it soon after collecting which can be a challenge since it takes approximately 40 gallons of sap to create one gallon of syrup. It can be a bit of a balancing act as you may find yourself with so much sap that you don’t know what to do with, or only enough sap to create one cup of syrup.

Marshall County Sugar Bush

The idea to try some maple syrup production here in Marshall County began many years ago with former Marshall County Conservation (MCC) Naturalist Diane Hall. She and some citizen volunteers tapped a few trees in Grammar Grove (near Liscomb) in years’ past to demonstrate maple syrup production on a small scale for the public.

In early 2017, with the holidays over and the depths of winter setting in, MCC staff began to get the bug to revive the maple syrup program out of a combination of curiosity and the possibility for generating some revenue. We decided to start small, drilling about a dozen taps in early February just to see how things went. However, once the sap began to flow and we were able to see for ourselves how much fun this would be, the staff couldn’t help but ramp up production to a full thirty taps. What started as a small scale learning opportunity quickly turned into over 400 gallon of sap and our small staff trying to stay on top of the daily chores of gathering buckets each morning. By the season’s end we had yielded over six gallons of syrup and the strong desire to take on even more next year!

As MCC looks forward to future seasons, there are many ideas and improvements that are abuzz at the GrimesFarm and Conservation Center. One of the first items on the improvement list is to obtain a sugar shack, a small building to hold an evaporator to cook down the sap more efficiently. Other improvements will include storage tanks, maple syrup canners, and an additional 60 taps. Call us crazy (or maybe we are just on a natural sugar high) but we are excited to grow this tradition and bring you all along for the delicious ride!

How can you reap the benefits? In the future we will be offering many educational opportunities that have arisen out of this new venture. These include youth school programs about trees, maple syrup making, map reading, scientific data collection, energy use, community service projects, and more. Adult programming will include topics on invasive species removal, forest management, alternative sources of income and maple syrup making. Plus, plans are in the works for a spring pancake feed of which donations will go towards future project improvements.

If you have any interest in learning more about the Maple Syrup Project, or if you would like to donate money or time to this project, contact Marshall County Conservation for more information at 641-752-5490. We would love to see you out in the sugar bush.

And speaking of Grammar Grove, if you’ve never been there before, now is a wonderful time. On Tuesday, May 9 from 11:30 a.m., to 12:30 p.m. join me at Grammar Grove to learn about Spring Ephemerals. The word ephemeral means “lasting a short time” and is a common term for the wildflowers that bloom in Iowa’s spring woodlands. What better way to spend your lunch break as we explore Grammar Grove in search of spring wildflowers.


Emily Herring is the Marshall County Naturalist.


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