Locals gather to help with maple-syrup making

by Cori Hilsgen


Many people may have noticed pails hung on area maple trees to collect the sap that will be boiled down for maple syrup. Once again, it’s syrup-making time around the St. Joseph area.

Maple syrup is made in the spring of the year when nighttime temperatures are below freezing and daytime temperatures rise above freezing. After a tree is large enough to be tapped, it can be used year after year.

Tapping is done by drilling a hole in the tree and gently tapping a spile in place. The sap flows from the tree through the spile into a bucket or bag. The sap is then heated to evaporate the water and boiled to a point where syrup is created. It takes almost 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup.

There are several options to learn about the syrup-making process around the area.

April 5 is the second Maple Syrup Festival weekend at St. John’s Outdoor University. The festival has been hosted for more than 10 years as an educational experience to learn the process of making maple syrup.

The event includes sap collecting, horse-drawn rides, syrup cooking, demonstrations, hot maple-syrup sundaes, a visit to the Sugar Shack and more.

Outdoor University department coordinator Jenny Kutter said they had a record-breaking crowd March 29. About 1,100 people attended the festival.

“In 2013, we had 945 total participants at our two festivals,” Kutter said. “In 2014 we had record-breaking attendance at our first festival with more than 1,100 people in attendance. Our previous record for one festival was just under 900 people in 2010.”

Kutter said if the weather stays sunny with temperatures of 40 degrees, they are expecting a similar crowd at the April 5 festival.

In 2012, SJU had a record-breaking low of only 39 gallons of syrup produced. Last year, they made about 550 gallons of syrup, which was a record amount of syrup for the number of trees that were tapped. SJU has historically produced about 240 gallons a year.

SJU has a goal of putting out about 1,500 taps this year. Most of them were already done on their Community Tapping Day held March 15. The rest are put out by preK-12 school groups, tours and the two festivals.

“Weather is the key factor in any syrup-making operation,” Kutter said. “In order for sap to flow, you need a series of days with daytime temperatures above freezing and nighttime temperatures below freezing while the trees are still dormant – before leaves have budded out. If spring warms up too fast as it did in 2012, sap doesn’t flow. If it stays cold longer, as it did in 2013 and has been so far this year, the season is delayed until temps do warm up. Maple-syrup producers tend to be some of those few people around here hoping spring doesn’t warm up too fast. Sap is starting to flow now that we’ve had a few warm days, but we keep getting so many cold days in between that we haven’t yet had a big sap run this season.”

Kutter said a key factor at SJU is their volunteers. Their operation relies on hundreds of volunteers to help tap trees, collect sap, cook syrup, give tours and help at the festivals.

“Since the focus at St. John’s Maple Syrup operation is on education, service-learning and volunteerism, it really is a community-driven system,” Kutter said. “We are continually grateful for friends of St. John’s Maple Syrup – new and old.”

Kutter reminded visitors the festival is entirely outdoors and they should dress for the weather. It’s extremely muddy and snowy so she highly recommends wearing boots.

Tapping maple syrup at SJU began in the 1940s when monks at the monastery learned the process because of World War II sugar rationing.

For more information, call 320-363-3163 or visit outdooru@csbsju.edu.

Another option for syrup making tours is at Stearns County’s Kraemer Lake-Wildwood County Park .

Shelly Carlson, her husband, Tom, and son, Ben, have been operating the Sugar Shack at the County Park since 1999. Her father built the shack in 1983.

Carlson said they had about 125 visitors Saturday and a few Sunday. They are not all tapped yet. They currently have about 50 buckets and 25 bags out. Most of their tapping is on a vacuum-tubing system.

When they are fully tapped, a vacuum-tubing system with about 1,400 taps and 200 buckets is used to collect tree sap.  At full capacity, they would have about 16,000 gallons of sap to boil into 400 gallons of pure maple syrup using a wood-fired evaporator.

“This has been a difficult season because of the weather,” Carlson said. “It was a slow start to the season.”

Carlson said they have been tapped since early March, but the sap has only recently started flowing. So far, they have cooked four or five times.

Tours of Stearns County’s Kraemer Lake -Wildwood County Park maple syrup operation are available April 5 and 12. Located southwest of St. Joseph off CR 51 at 29709 Kipper Road, free tours are offered from 1-4 p.m. Saturdays.

Visitors should look for signs. Groups should call 320-248-7784 to arrange tours.

contributed photo
Volunteer Neal DeMars prepares a group to collect sap March 29 during the St. John’s Outdoor University annual maple syrup festival. The festival continues from 1-4 p.m. April 5.

contributed photo
Almost 200 people helped at the St. John’s Outdoor University Community Tapping Day March 15.

Cori Hilsgen

Cori Hilsgen


Hilsgen is a contributing reporter for the Newsleaders. The central Minnesota native is a wife, mother and grandmother. She has a Bachelor's degree in Organizational Management and Communication from Concordia University – St. Paul, MN and enjoys learning about and sharing other people's stories through the pages of the Newsleaders.
Cori Hilsgen
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