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Maple syrup season is late this year

By Carol Stender

Date Modified: 04/25/2013 7:03 PM

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ST. JOSEPH, Minn. — Tom and Shelly Carlson would normally be near the end of the maple syrup season. Instead, they have just started production in their rural St. Joseph sugar shack.

Snow and colder-than-normal temperatures have made the season about two weeks late, Tom said.

"But we won't cuss the snow in April," he said. "It extends our season."

The good news is the sap is running. Warmer days and cold nights are ideal for maple syrup production.

The family tradition started in the early 1980s as a simple project.

The 320-acre farm is where her parents, Wally and Dorothy Honer, raised registered Morgan horses and registered Black Angus.

Shelly describes her father as "one of those guys who loved to get things from the land." He bought a saw mill to cut lumber and tried growing mushrooms. It was a comment made by a forester visiting the farm that planted the seed for maple syrup.

"He said, 'You have a nice concentration of maple trees. You should do something with them,'" said Shelly as she remembered the conversation.

Her brother, Fred, returned to the farm after homesteading in Alaska and took his do-it-yourself skills to maple syrup production. The next year, Wally and several friends took the system to a shelter they built in the woods. By the mid-1980s, he built the shack and processed sap to syrup in a two-foot by eight-foot evaporator.

Shelly and Tom took over production in 1997.

Wally died two years later during syrup season. Although Stearns County purchased 260 acres of the farm for a county park, it hasn't stopped the Carlsons. The sale included an agreement that allows them to tap trees and make syrup in the shack.

Shelly and Tom couldn't do it without family. Her brothers, Lance, Fred and Bill; a nephew, Frank; and Tom's father, Loren, have helped.

Their children, Addie, 19, and Ben, 22, also have taken part. They also remember those who've played important roles in the operation over time including Wally and Shelly's brother, Wayne, who died a year ago.

"We miss him a lot this year," she said.

Preparing for the season starts in February with a "snow stomp." The couple, friends and family wear snowshoes to create a single path through the 30-plus acres to the trees that will be tapped for sap collection. The path hardens and becomes easier to traverse for the many trips from the sugar shack to trees.

Next, the blue hose is checked for holes. Small animals and deer like to bite the tubing, she said. A few years ago, woodpeckers were a problem. The taps are also checked.

The next step is tapping. A small hole is drilled into the tree followed by placement of the tap. It takes two and a half days to tap the trees, she said.

Two types of systems are used to collect sap. In one area, blue tubing is connected to taps. A vacuum system moves sap from trees to a shed were it goes into a receiving jar. The sap then travels to storage tanks placed on platforms near the sugar shack's roof. It then flows into the evaporator where it is cooked into a syrup. The next stop is the finishing and bottling pans where the syrup is filtered then bottled.

There are 1,100 taps on the tube line, she said.

Other trees, located in terrain not conducive to a tube system, are tapped with the sap flowing in buckets. There are 500 trees in this system.

The couple has noticed more climate extremes as they try to collect and process the sap over the last decade or so.

"When my dad had it, we started around March 15 and ended around April 15," Shelly said. "This year, the weather definitely has affected production. This is one of those ag crops that may not disappear, but it will be harder to get a crop because of the climate change. As it warms up, you don't get the freeze and thaw that are needed for good production."

Sap runs best when it's raining, sleeting or as a low-pressure system passes through.

In 2004, they purchased a new evaporator which heats the raw sap. It handles 60 to 80 gallons of sap per hour, Tom said. The entire process from cooking to bottling takes about six hours.

It is a very seasonal business that requires time and attention when the sap flows. Each person helping with the process makes adjustments to work schedules to help. Shelly is an event coordinator at St. John the Baptist parish and Tom is a veterinarian.

During summer, Shelly sells syrup and vegetables grown on their farm at the St. Joseph Farmers Market. She also is active in the Minnesota Maple Syrup Producers Association and is its treasurer.