RIVER FALLS, Wis.-As the temperatures start to warm up and spring is just around the corner, maple syrup producers are out in the woods working to make that sweet treat so many enjoy.
Lindsey Baris and her husband Ryan Browne own Rising Sun Farm outside of River Falls and have begun their maple syrup production for the 2018 season. Baris described their operation as a middle-size operation; they produce maple syrup to sell on their farm and at farmers markets.
"We have a strong following," Baris said. "We always sell out by next year."
Rising Sun Farm has been in operation for 40 years. Prior to Baris and Browne taking over the operation four years ago, Ryan's dad Roger Browne ran the business. Baris said Roger is still very important to the venture and contributes his knowledge.
Baris said historically they have used buckets to collect the sap, but three years ago they switched to tubing. Browne said with the tubing they are able to drill a smaller hole into the tree and get a higher yield of sap.
"Smaller wound, less damage to the tree even though you get more sap," Browne said about using the smaller hole for the tubing.
For a couple of years prior to using the tubing, Baris was the main sap collector.
"I had to carry sap to dump stations," Baris said. "It was a lot of work."
There is still work to be done with the tubing. Browne said they have to check and repair tubing every year. A lot of damage can be caused by squirrels and falling branches.
"At the end of February we walk around and fix it all," Browne said of the tubing.
He also puts new taps out every year; the drop line needs to be replaced every three years for best yields.
"The cleaner everything is in the tree the more sap you get," Browne said.
Depending on weather, they usually start collecting sap shortly after they repair all tubing at the end of February. This year, Browne said, they started tapping on March 3, but depending on the weather trees can be tapped anywhere from about Feb. 15 to March 15.
Once sap is collected, Browne said it should usually be processed within 24-48 hours; however, this can be longer in the beginning of the season.
"In the beginning of the year there is more leeway [with when to cook sap]," Browne said. "The cold keeps everything fresh."
Baris and Browne agreed cooking the sap is the fun part. This year they had their first cooking on March 17.
"People want to come out and watch while cooking," Baris said. "The smell is amazing."
To cook the syrup, they use firewood her husband harvests from the woods in the winter.
"Firewood is a good way to use less desirable wood," Browne said. "It's a good way to use up wood like box elder."
Once enough sap is collected, Browne said they start cooking.
"We fire up after lunch and run four to five hours," Browne said. "Eight hundred to 1,000 gallons of sap at a time. [It makes] 20-25 gallons of maple syrup. [We get] 25 gallons of syrup out of full cord of firewood."
During the maple syrup season, Browne said he will burn 6-7 cords of wood cooking sap to make their maple syrup.
He said fuel oil can also be used to cook down the sap to syrup, but they prefer to use the wood since they have a supply of it available. However, Browne said an advantage of fuel oil is that you can immediately turn off the heat if need be, which isn't the case with wood heat.
"You're never more than 15 seconds from disaster," Browne said.
He said if something goes wrong and the sap stops flowing, the batch of sap can burn and be ruined. While he is cooking he has to constantly be listening and watching to make sure everything is running as it should. If for some reason the sap stops flowing into the evaluator, he has a bucket of sap nearby that he can add while they figure out why the sap is no longer coming through the gravity feed.
The process to get sap from the tree to the final product may differ from operation to operation. Baris explained their process starts from the sap going through the tubing into a holding tank. Then the sap is pumped from the holding tank to the gravity tank.
"The sap is gravity fed from that [gravity] tank into the evaluator, where it moves through the flues in the pan as it cooks," Baris said. "The flues increase surface area that the flame heats up."
To create that final sweet product the sap continues to be heated.
"The water is evaporated," Baris said. "As it moves through the pan, it gets thicker and darker until it moves into the finishing pan, where it turns into maple syrup. It is then tested for density and temperature before drawing off the syrup."
In addition to maple syrup, Baris said they also have produce, chickens, honey and White Pine Orchard, where people can pick apples in the fall.