Maple syrup makers are among the few that relished in a cold snap a couple weeks ago, around March 12. And around Belle Plaine, multiple generations of maple syrup makers came out of hibernation for their annual gathering season, which lasts only a matter of weeks and is lengthened by colder weather.
Don Koepp, who lives northwest of Belle Plaine, recalls that his earliest maple syrup cooking day, the day in which maple sap can begin being boiled down into the amber gold known as maple syrup, was Feb. 15. This year his group of retiree-volunteers started cooking on March 6 and bottled their first batch on March 7, making this year about average in terms of the season’s start.
On March 12, Koepp’s group had a reservoir containing about 250 gallons of raw sap. Before venturing out to gather more and, of course, before COVID-19 halted regular life to a large extent, the reserves meant the group had two solid days of boiling ahead of them.
Manning a constantly burning custom furnace after hauling 5-gallon buckets filled with sap may sound like a chore for some, but for Koepp and his group who are all around 70 years old or older, the venture is something they look forward to every year.
“Everybody’s tired of hibernation and like to get out into the woods,” Koepp said.
One walking into Koepp’s shed would see a heap of firewood lining one wall and a series of power tools lining another. A stainless-steel basin with a series of burners beneath it lies in wait for a much larger, rugged-looking burner to do its work reducing maple sap to about 1/35th of its water content. One might or might not also notice a bottle of Jack Daniels Old No. 7 that might or might not be used in the syrup making process.
But what’s far more striking than the sights in Koepp’s shop is the unmistakable, practically edible smells of campfire and hot maple sap billowing out of a furnace designed specifically for the task of reducing sap. The smell gives a certain weight to the room that the group hardly seems to notice.
On March 12, a group of four men took turns with various tasks, including pumping new sap into the raw reservoir and feeding the burner more firewood. In between tasks, the group takes regular breaks to chat. The group of faces tends to change and grow or shrink depending on the day and depending on who is available. As more people have come to learn of the operation, the group and, by proxy, the conversations have changed and grown. Most who come through Koepp’s door are at least casual friends, but with most having spent the better part of their lives in the Belle Plaine area, everybody is bound to know anyone who happens to walk through the door.
Topics of conversation range from old hay bailing machines to high school sports.
“We just sit here and shoot the grease,” Koepp said. “We stay away from politics and religion because you can’t win those.”
On the other side of Highway 169 not far from Coborn’s grocery store, Tommy Traxler joined his two young sons, Austin and Nicholas, in checking a large maple sap vat that sits near the bottom of a gorge on the outskirts of Belle Plaine.
Traxler, who owns Faxon Farms Pure Maple Syrup, tended to about 10 miles of hoses attached to about 700 trees that fed into the vat. In total, Traxler manages about 2000 taps.
Traxler, like Koepp’s crew, views the maple syrup season as a welcomed respite from bitter winters.
Traxler purchased what used to be a dairy pasture from his father last year using the money raised from his syrup operation. He stated that he at least partially views his decision to use his land for syrup over dairy as a safer bet given the financial challenges small dairy operations face.
“I think maple is not as big of a risk as dairy is because people will always want sugar, and maples are only in a certain part of the United States,” Traxler said.
The fact that there is no need to replant trees to get a yearly maple syrup sap harvest, even after 100 years or more, is just a bonus, Traxler said. But all told, he just likes making syrup.
On March 12, Traxler had already processed about 4000 gallons of raw sap for just about 100 gallons of maple syrup. With a full time job with the Carver County CDA, Traxler had his hands full flushing lines and replacing taps prior to the start of the season. If Traxler had his way, Austin, 7, and Nicholas, 6, as well as a third boy on the way, would help take over the operation, but he would never pressure them to do so.
“If they want to do it, great,” Traxler said.
“They love the outdoors,” he added.