Spring is inching its way into the Kickapoo Valley, bringing with it robins, brave little crocus flowers, and the ever-favorite yearly tradition of maple syrup production.
Soldiers Grove resident Josh Straum can be found at his sugar bush in rural Liberty tapping trees, collecting sap and keeping the tradition of syrup production alive.
“When I was younger we would just tap the big soft maple trees in the yard and cook it over a campfire, it was a good time” Straum remembered fondly. “That’s when I really fell in love with the flavor.”
Straum’s sugar bush is located in what was one of the largest in the area up until the 1960s. Maple trees line the hillside above his sugar shack. A short drive up the logging road and you will still find the remains of a former cabin and sugar shack that housed production for many years.
“In the spring they would move the entire family up here to produce syrup,” noted Straum of the small walnut cabin in the woods. “Some one would leave to milk the cows and tend the other animals on the farm and everyone else would be up here cooking away.”
Where once the sap was collected in milk buckets and brought to the cook shanty in horse drawn sleds to be reduced to syrup, the land is now covered with plastic piping zigging and zagging through the trees and down the hillside.
“It’s tradition. Making maple syrup is what everyone has done in the spring time for a very long time,” Straum said.
Straum put his first taps in during the spring of 2013 with much help from family and friends. For him, Ocooch Maple is a labor of love.
“When we’re cooking the sap, we’re here together, taking turns throwing logs on the fire and enjoying each others company,” noted Straum with a smile.
Maple syrup production seems to have a way of bringing people together.
“You kind of just fall in love with the smell of maple sap on the fire, there is kind of a romantic ambiance when people visit the sugar shack,” Rod Swerman of the Wisconsin Maple Syrup Producers Association (WMSPA) said wistfully.
Preparing maple syrup can range from a pan over a fire, to a larger wood-fired operation like at Ocooch Maple, to an industrial setting in a large poleshed with gas or propane powered flames.
“Our syrup has that smoky flavor, its very clear and beautiful but I love the flavor,” said Straum, who prefers the quality of wood over propane cooking. “It smells like cotton candy when you’re cooking it.”
This year’s weather projections seem to be on the side of Ocooch Maple and other producers in the area. Currently, Straum sells his Ocooch Maple Syrup at the Kickapoo Inn in Readstown and is currently looking to expand by marketing in the Florida Keys where he has family members. Those interested in Ocooch Maple syrup or with other questions can contact him at 608-606-6470.
“The weather is fabulous for the sap to run,” noted Straum. But Mother Nature could change its mind at any moment keeping the makers of this sweet liquid on their toes.
The season starts around the first or second week in March, noted Cecil Wright of the Maple Valley Cooperative in Cashton.
“We’re feeling pretty good so far,” noted Wright of the season “We’re off to a good start.”
Swerman also noted good runs throughout the different regions of the state, but believes that it may be a short year due to early warm weather. The ideal temperatures for collecting sap are lows in the 20s and highs in the 40s, allowing for the sap to run before the trees bud out. After budding begins sap production slows and the flavor changes, bringing syrup production to an end. The wet snow however is expected to help stimulate the flow of the sap for producers of all sizes.
Taking about 40 gallons of sap to one gallon of syrup production can be no easy feat, yet it is one taken on by many. The USDA estimated about 11.4 million taps nationally with the 2014 season lasting about 29 days. Wisconsin produced about 6% of the nations maple syrup, ranking between the forth and fifth nationally in production.
Using techniques such as vacuum feeding help speed along the sap collection process for producers, allowing them to get more sap from the trees even when the weather isn’t cooperating.
“Production levels can really be dependent on technology these days,” explained Wright. “When it’s really dry it’s hard to get things out without the vacuum.”
Some producers also have upped the technology by using a reverse osmosis system to remove water from the sap and then boiling for a short time, versus the all-day boiling of classic production.
“Most generally, everybody does it differently,” said Swerman. “You can walk into nearly any sugar shack and see something different with production,”
Maple tapping is a sustainable option for the sweet tooth. It does not hurt the trees and studies show that trees that are tapped year after year live just as long, but may grow slightly slower than their unharvested counterparts.
Syrup flavor is affected by soil type, tree genetics, and weather conditions during the maple season. There are around 300 different natural flavor compounds found in pure maple syrup, according to Cornell University’s Sugar Maple research program. Your nose can detect most of the compounds, which vary between producers and time of year.
The golden syrup is considered a healthier alternative to other sweeteners for a variety of foods, not just your typical pancakes and waffles. It contains 68% carbohydrates while most other syrups contain 100% according to the Cornell researchers. It contains virtually the same calorie content as white sugar, but it also contain significant amounts of calcium, and potassium, with a low sodium content.
From small back yard cooking operations to large sugar shacks tucked away in the hills and valleys, tapping trees and cooking sap seems to be a tradition that will live on throughout the springs in the Kickapoo, bringing together friends and family for the love of the golden syrup.