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Weekend hobby turns into full-time agribusiness operation for Camp Aquila Pure Maple Syrup

Stu and Corinne Peterson's Camp Aquila Pure Maple Syrup is sold in 30 stores in Minnesota and has been honored locally and nationally.

A man in a red shirt, khaki pants and black rubber boots leans over and points at a collection of small metal barrels. Behind him is a pile of cut wood and another man dressed in brown.
Stu Peterson inspects barrels of sap that will be turned into Camp Aquila Pure Maple Syrup at Star Lake near Dent, Minnesota, on April 22, 2022.
Katie Pinke / Agweek
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DENT, Minn. — What was a weekend hobby turned into a thriving agribusiness for Stu and Corinne Peterson near Dent. For the past 22 years, they have harvested maple sap from trees on their property on Star Lake and turned it into Camp Aquila Pure Maple Syrup .

“We’re small peanuts compared to the big producers. There’s so much technology you can purchase, there’s so much efficiencies," Stu Peterson said. "We’re pretty labor intensive the way we do it, and so we can do it sized for my wife and I, and the kids when they show up, when the sap is running.”

Signs for Camp Aquila Pure Maple Syrup and Camp Aquila For Boys and Girls hang on adjacent walls.
The land that once house Camp Aquila for Boys now is used for maple syrup production by Camp Aquila Pure Maple Syrup. The land is on Star Lake, near Dent, Minnesota. Photo taken April 22, 2022.
Katie Pinke / Agweek

Camp Aquila was a boys camp from the 1950s through the 1970s. Growing up in St. Paul, Stu Peterson had a childhood friend who attended the camp each summer, but he never visited until he was 19 years old. In 1983, Stu and his wife had the opportunity to purchase the property on contract for deed. For 20 years, they were weekenders, coming up from the Twin Cities to rural Ottertail County. The intention was always to keep the land whole, not breaking it up for development.

In 2000, the Petersons started tapping the sugar maples across the 120 wooded acres for sap. They built their full-time home on the property in 2004 and started what Stu calls “our own little food company.”

Stu wasn’t raised on a farm, but his father was an agriculture professor at the University of Minnesota.

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“I grew three blocks from the St. Paul ‘farm campus,’ as we called it back in the day. My dad was an ag teacher, and that was my view of the world. The family farm was still owned by my dad and my aunt out in Waconia. As a little kid, I was peddling eggs, door to door, on the weekend, out in Waconia. I’ve just always in been in agribusiness and then got an ag economic/ ag business degree,” he said.

A man in a red shirt stands in front of a collection of maple syrup bottles.
Stu Peterson and his wife, Corinne, once were weekenders at Star Lake near Dent, Minnesota. But in 2000, they started making Camp Aquila Pure Maple Syrup at their former vacation home, and four years later, they built their permanent home on the property. Their maple syrup has been honored in local through international competitions. Photo taken April 22, 2022.
Katie Pinke / Agweek

Stu's upbringing and education led him to a career in ag finance.

“For 40 years, I critiqued, advised and analyzed small agribusinesses and some very large ones. To sit on one side of the desk and then try to start up my own, you can relate," he said. "A number of my former customers in my other life were the sugarbeet operations. And so they’ve got their big factory, we’ve got our little factory. They harvest in the fall, we harvest in the spring.”

The Petersons' maple syrup operation has continued to grow. This year they have collected and processed about 8,200 gallons of maple sap from 1,200 trees, which boils down to about 240 gallons of syrup. Last year, they produced over 300 gallons of maple syrup with 370 gallons being their largest year of production.

“Everything here is in balance. Corinne and I can handle it. We can process it and we can market it,” Stu said.

They sell every drop they produce across 30 stores mostly in Minnesota.

Starting in the maple business, the Peterson initially went through the U.S. Department of Agriculture organic certification program which he said “got us in the door” at retailers.

Is all maple syrup organic? “Well, not certified organic,” Stu explained.

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Signs for Minnesota Grown and Maple Syrup hang over a window display of stacked maple syrup.
Camp Aquila Pure Maple Syrup used to be certified organic through the U.S. Department of Agriculture but has dropped the certification in recent years. Stu Peterson says marketing the product as local rather than organic has not made a difference in sales. Photo taken April 22, 2022, near Dent, Minnesota.
Katie Pinke / Agweek

“We’re no longer certified organic. We’re not doing anything differently if we were, except for the fact when you get out to the woods, when you pull a tap, you put a little spot of paint on the tree so you can find a new spot next year. The organic people didn’t like me using paint on the trees in the woods, which wasn’t a big deal, but it helps me when we go back to tap to find new, fresh wood,” he said.

“The year we had a crop failure, I had to buy outside syrup to keep my stores. We didn’t certify that organic. We told all the stores we couldn’t put that little green sticker on it. We would bottle it and supply them, and we were well enough established that we were locally produced not certified organic. Quality and reputation then led. I just didn’t want to pay for the (organic) inspection anymore, $300-400, so we gave that up and it didn’t make a bit of difference in the end.”

Stu said Minnesota has seen huge growth in collecting sap as a hobby over the last few years.

“Just people tapping five, 10, 15, 20 trees is just phenomenal. I couldn’t begin to estimate how many there are, especially in this area, a lot of maples, a lot of rural parcels,” he said.

New hobbyists among the Minnesota maple trees who use sound business practices may be able to turn their operations into agribusinesses like Camp Aquila Pure Maple Syrup as the Petersons have done. Their syrup has been honored in award competitions from the local level to the international level. That includes taking first place in the Light Amber category of the North American Maple Council.

“There’s something about the trees in Minnesota, the sugar maples, and our soils . Minnesota producers do very well in international competition,” Stu said.

The International Maple Conference returns to the region this year when the Wisconsin Maple Syrup Producers Association hosts October 26-29, 2022 in LaCrosse, Wis. https://wismaple.org/2022

The Petersons look forward to returning with their fellow Minnesota Maple Syrup Producers’ Association members to the international event.

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