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Alice in Dairyland kicks off Maple Month at Gilman sugar bush

Alice in Dairyland Ann O’Leary presents Mark Spence with Gov. Scott Walker’s Maple Month proclamation as his sons and wife Pam watch on Saturday, March 11. (Herald photo by Sarah Young)

TOWN OF GILMAN -- Who's ready for some pancakes soaked in Wisconsin maple syrup?

The 69th Alice in Dairyland, Ann O'Leary, was on hand Saturday, March 11, at Mark and Pam Spence's Sugar Bush in the town of Gilman for the Wisconsin Maple Syrup Producers Association ceremonial first tree tapping of the season.

WMSPA Executive Director Theresa Baroun said the association chooses a member sugar bush each year to host the tree tapping. The WMSPA chooses a location in a different district (out of five) each year.

O'Leary, who is a public relations professional representing the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, travels the state to educate the media, youth organizations, civic groups and the community about Wisconsin's agricultural industries.

Before reading a proclamation signed by Gov. Scott Walker declaring March 15 through April 15 "Maple Month" in Wisconsin, she mingled with a crowd of about 60 people, signing autographs and handing out maple-themed coloring books.

The Spence family, which includes three sons Brad, Nate and Greg, began collecting sap in 1984, with roughly 300 buckets. Mark Spence acknowledged Spring Valley resident Dean Madson on getting him started.

"We began with cooking with flat pans, a very slow process," Spence said.

Spence credited his father-in-law, Norwood Ecklund, for laboring over the flat pans, which is "about as boring as watching paint dry."

Within one to two years, the operation grew to 500 buckets annually. Once they converted to tubing, that number grew to 900 taps.

"As we acquired more acreage, we added more woods, though scattered," Spence said, gesturing in different directions from his yard on Highway 29.

The Spences collect from 3,500 taps currently.

"It's definitely not a one-man operation," Spence said. "I remember many times we were cooking the syrup, cutting wood and scrambling."

Typically, sap collectors tap maple trees in early spring when daytime temperatures are above freezing and nighttime temperature still dip below freezing. The exact time depends on elevation and location of trees. Beroun said many producers have already tapped, so the first tree tapping of the year is really for show.

On average, it takes 40 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of maple syrup. This depends upon the sugar content of the sap.

O'Leary drilled an old-fashioned "brace and bit" into a maple tree in the Spence's front yard, officially opening maple syrup season.

She spoke about Wisconsin's "diverse agricultural products which are enjoyed across the globe" and exported to more than 140 countries. The Rock County native said her mother is so picky about her syrup, that she brings her own with her wherever she goes. She reminded syrup enthusiasts that Wisconsin ranks fourth in the nation in maple syrup production.

Spence closed his remarks with a tale about the maples dotting his land.

Apparently an old-timer hired someone to plant the maples, about 50 years ago, with a spade. One tiny maple was clinging to a root ball, and that seedling was planted. It allegedly grew as big as its surrounding relatives, though it began its life much smaller than the others. That is the tree O'Leary drilled into.

"Who knows if it's true," Spence said. "They're all the same and we can't tell the difference."

Pierce County is also home to S&S Sugar Bush, located at N3870 730th St., Ellsworth. To learn more about their upcoming open house, visit them on Facebook.

For more information about the Alice in Dairyland program, visit To learn more about WMSPA, check out To reach Spence's Maple Syrup (W3581 State Road 29, Spring Valley), call 715-778-4582.

Sarah Nigbor

Sarah J. Nigbor serves as a regional editor for RiverTown Multimedia, a position she began in April 2017. She joined RiverTown Multimedia in October 2013 as a news reporter for the New Richmond News, before being appointed editor of the Pierce County Herald in Febraury 2015. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Spanish and French in 2001. She completed a minor in journalism in 2004. 

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