Producing maple syrup has become a family tradition for one Ellsworth couple and they were recently recognized for their work at the Annual Maple Institute of Wisconsin.
Barry and Carol Stockwell from S&S Sugar Bush/Stockwell's Maple Treats near Ellsworth were awarded a plaque for "Maple Syrup Producer of the Year 2017" in Wausau on Jan. 13 at the convention.
"The Stockwell family has been making maple syrup for the past 100 plus years, and Barry has been involved in the business since he was old enough to get out and help gather the sap," Carol said. "We are the fourth generation of syrup producers in the family hobby."
Carol said they have been collecting maple sap from the same woods since the family started their business. She said they have had to cut down some of the older trees and replace them with new trees, but even these cut trees provide for the production.
"The cut trees have always been cut up and used for firewood to heat the sugar house during syrup seasons which occurs during early spring year after year," Carol said.
Throughout the years, Carol said the maple syrup industry has seen many changes. A big change is how the sap is collected in the woods.
"Up until about 30 years ago, the sap collection had all been done by solely hanging buckets on the trees to collect the sap which drips from the trees when the temperatures are exactly right during early spring," Carol said. "The sap was collected by hand by gathering tree-to-tree the filled buckets with 5-gallon buckets in hand."
However, Carol said times have changed and now besides hanging buckets from the spigots, she said some people have started using heavy duty covered bags on the spigots or a "tubing" system to get sap from the trees.
"There is continual upgrades and means to collect the sap from the trees in this day and age," Carol said.
S&S Sugar Bush/Stockwell's Maple Treats produces about 900-1,000 gallons of maple syrup annually. Carol said in order to make this much syrup they must collect thousands of gallons of sap.
"In order to make one pint of syrup it takes 40 pints of sap, boiled down, removing all the water content from the sap," Carol said. "One gallon of pure maple syrup consists of 35-40 gallons of sap boiled down."
In order to keep up this production, Carol said they put out about 3,000 taps and put in many hours of work and dedication to make a quality product. She said the taps must be put in in mid-February to early March before the sap starts flowing. Once the temperatures are right (nighttime temperatures around 20-25 degrees and daytime temperatures around 40-45 degrees) the sap starts flowing into the buckets, bags or tubing.
At this point manual labor is required to gather the filled containers and transfer the sap to a 5-gallon bucket, which is then dumped into a gathering tank on the tractor. When the gathering tank is filled it is taken to the sugar house where the sap is transferred to a large holding tank to begin being processed into maple syrup.
Carol said they pump the sap through a reverse osmosis system to remove most of the water before the sap goes into the evaporator. In the evaporator, the sap is brought to the perfect maple syrup consistency and flavor. After it is done in the evaporator, the syrup goes through a large filtering system before it is put in bottles.
The maple syrup season can vary depending on weather but usually lasts about four weeks.
"The sap will continue to drip from the trees until the trees begin to bud out," Carol said. "Some years the season has only last for one week and other years it has gone five to six weeks. It all depends on Mother Nature."
Carol said they have worked hard to continue to provide a quality product and their efforts last year were rewarded when they received the "Maple Syrup Producer of the Year 2017" award.
In order to receive this award, a producer must be a licensed member of the Wisconsin Maple Syrup Producers Association (WMSPA), be active in the industry and have "received the blue ribbon for making quality grade A blue ribbon maple syrup."
"The syrup must have the density of 66 brix [indicates percentage of sugar in maple syrup] so the syrup does not spoil," Carol said in order for syrup to be blue ribbon Grade A quality. "It must have the color of light to medium amber to qualify for the judging, the taste has to be a light delicate sweet maple flavor, with no aftertaste or any other off taste which changes the flavor of the syrup. It must have gone through a filter system to remove any impurities and appearance crystal clear once bottled."
In addition to producing a quality product, Carol said they also have to be involved in the industry to receive this award. For the last 20 years the Stockwells have been involved with the WMSPA at the Wisconsin State Fair and the past two years they have served as the state fair coordinators for the Association. During their time at the State Fair, they've started to see some repeat customers.
"In the past 20 years we have seen a growing number of customers who continually seek us out at the fair in the Wisconsin Products Pavillion for the sweet taste of maple from the maple cotton candy to the bottled golden sugar from the sun," Carol said.
Producing maple syrup and getting the finished product is what Carol said she looks forward to and this finished product is her reward.
"Very rewarding and satisfying to obtain that special product that flows from the trees and able to be produced for all to enjoy," Carol said. "Maple syrup is being sought after more and more, many have discovered the nutritional benefits derived from this natural and pure product obtained from the trees."