65th Alice in Dairyland Rochelle Ripp

We are relieved that winter has finally come to an end in Wisconsin and one of those telltale signs of spring is the tapping of Wisconsin’s State Tree, the sugar maple.

With this annual spring tradition, the sap run is in full swing throughout Wisconsin. Now is the perfect time for all of us to indulge in pure maple syrup and savor the many benefits this liquid gold brings to Wisconsin’s $59 billion agriculture industry, the economy and health of every Wisconsinite.

To learn about the harvesting of maple syrup, I recently had the opportunity to tap the state’s first official maple tree of the season at Maple Grove School in Athens.

I was joined by students, their family members and the Marathon County community to celebrate the beginning of spring. During the ceremony, a proclamation, issued by Governor Scott Walker, was read designating March 16 through April 16 as Maple Month.

Students and I drilled, or tapped, the tree just deep enough beneath the bark. The next step was to insert the spile or spout into the hole to begin the flow of sap. Each hole will give about 10 gallons of sap to be reduced down to one quart of finished syrup.

The sap is collected in metal buckets and stored in storage tanks until boiled down to the exact sugar content. Sap from the tree is originally about 98 percent water and 2 percent sugar. Sap becomes sugar when it reaches four degrees above the boiling point of water (216 degrees Fahrenheit) and 67 percent sugar.

Wisconsin sugar makers, as they are called, are patient; most trees are at least 40 years old before they are tapped! Syrup season runs for four to six weeks. The sap runs heaviest for ten to twenty days before tree buds begin to open. Ideally, our sugar makers would like to see 40 degree weather days and freezing evenings to keep the sap flowing.

After the official tapping, I toured Sweet Nature Foods LLC just down the road to learn a bit about their maple products business. In 2010 a new state of the art processing and bottling/packaging facility was built to allow for the production of the highest quality maple specialties.

This year they tapped about 3,000 trees on March 2 for their 2013 season and are using the modern equipment to help quicken the process. Their reverse osmosis machine removes half of the water in the sap much quicker than it would take to boil it down. The sap runs through shallow grooves that wind around to get as much surface area as possible to reduce the sugary liquid. In just one hour, they are able to produce 20 gallons of syrup, compared to what would typically take much longer.

I learned that maple syrup is not just for pancakes, although that is surely a favorite way to enjoy this “kiss from nature.” I tried a few different recipes with my maple syrup, one being on butternut squash.

You simply cut your butternut squash in half and seed it before you add about one half tablespoon of butter and one tablespoon of maple syrup into the cavity. Baste the squash with that delicious mixture every 15 minutes. Believe me, it is delicious!

You might see a few different shades of maple syrup at the grocery store or local businesses. Lighter sap is typically from the early season of tree tapping and as the season goes on, the sap becomes a bit darker later in the season, giving it a different flavor. Pick up a pint of dark amber syrup from your local sugar maker, to add a deep richness to your baked goods and to satisfy your sweet tooth.

Buy pure Wisconsin maple syrup to support our sugar makers to keep that money in our communities and economy while supporting our Wisconsin way of life and taste buds!

Alice in Dairyland Rochelle Ripp is Wisconsin’s agriculture ambassador. She travels more than 40,000 miles throughout the state, promoting Wisconsin agriculture to various audiences. Alice in Dairyland can be reached by writing to Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP), 2811 Agriculture Drive, PO Box 8911, Madison, WI 53718.

To schedule Alice for an upcoming event, contact the Alice in Dairyland Program Manager at 608.224.5115 or by e-mail at DATCPAlice@wisconsin.gov.

To learn more about Wisconsin’s $59 billion agricultural industry visit her travel blog at http://www.wisconsinagconnection.com/alice or become a friend on Facebook (Alice Dairyland), follow on twitter (Alice_Dairyland) or LinkedIn (Alice in Dairyland).

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