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Tapping into 'a great opportunity' with maple syrup production

BROOKINGS -- Thanks to an early spring, McCrory Gardens is three to four weeks ahead of schedule with its maple syrup production. South Dakota's largest collection of maples is responsible for producing not only sugar maple syrup but also silver ...

McCrory Gardens sells its maple syrup at the Education and Visitor Center in Brookings. Syrup varieties include sugar maple, silver maple, Norway maple and a sugar/silver maple blend. (Erin Beck/For The Daily Republic)
McCrory Gardens sells its maple syrup at the Education and Visitor Center in Brookings. Syrup varieties include sugar maple, silver maple, Norway maple and a sugar/silver maple blend. (Erin Beck/For The Daily Republic)

BROOKINGS - Thanks to an early spring, McCrory Gardens is three to four weeks ahead of schedule with its maple syrup production.

South Dakota's largest collection of maples is responsible for producing not only sugar maple syrup but also silver and Norway maple syrup. Chris Schlenker, head gardener at McCrory Gardens in Brookings, oversees the process from start to finish.

"We want to showcase what silver maple syrup is like compared to others so people can tap into it as a hobby," Schlenker said.

The beginning of spring brings the best temperatures for sap collection, with ideal temps rising around 40 to 50 degrees during the day and hovering at 20 degrees at night.

"That gives the sap time to slow down and let the trees recharge," Schlenker said.

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Trees can be tapped up to a week in advance of the forecasted temps. When tapping trees, Schlenker recommends placing the spile - which is like the tree's faucet - in a place where the tree trunk will warm up. For trees that undergo several years of sap collection, the spile should be placed off to the side of previous years' tapped holes. Root growth and healthy branches are good indicators of sap flow.

After sap collection is finished for the year, the spile should be removed to give the tree time to heal. According to Schlenker, spiles can be placed in trees with a diameter of at least 12 inches. A tree with a diameter of 24 inches or larger can hold up to three spiles.

Schlenker boils sap into syrup with the help of Christina Lind-Thielke two to three times a week during their sap collection season. With their evaporator, a smaller scale version compared to what's used in the commercial industry, Schlenker and Lind-Thielke can boil off 10 gallons of sap an hour.

"The syrup is straight from the tree and boiled down," Lind-Thielke said. "Nothing's added to it."

The sap is poured into the stock tank, which then drains into the warming chamber and enters the flue pan. The sap is boiled from a 3 percent sugar content until it reaches 66 percent sugar. At South Dakota elevation, syrup reaches 66 percent sugar content when it's boiled to 217.7 degrees. Schlenker and Lind-Thielke open the valve at 219.7 degrees and let the syrup drain until the temperature reading drops down to 214 degrees.

"All we're doing is boiling off water," Schlenker said.

It typically takes Schlenker and Lind-Thielke eight hours to pull off three gallons of syrup. The syrup is stored in a cooler and processed within two weeks to prevent bacterial contamination. While syrup yield depends on the weather, they usually see yields of 10 to 15 gallons per year.

The syrup is sold at McCrory Gardens Education and Visitor Center. Right now varieties include sugar maple, silver maple, Norway maple and a sugar and silver maple mixture. Schlenker is currently experimenting with a black walnut syrup.

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"Maple syrup is a healthy sweetener," Schlenker said. "It has lots of vitamins and minerals."

McCrory Gardens' syrup production began with Peter Schaefer, professor in plant science at South Dakota State University. Schaefer was inspired to make maple syrup at his home in 2007 after attending a field tour in Illinois exhibiting silver maples used for maple syrup production.

"Since silver maple is native to the state and many trees have been planted in both rural and urban landscapes, it occurred to me that there were potentially a lot of people who would be interested in learning that they could make syrup from silver maple," Schaefer said.

In 2011, Schaefer, along with David Graper and Rhoda Burrows, received funding through the South Dakota Department of Agriculture Specialty Crop Block Grant Program to demonstrate the feasibility of maple syrup production in South Dakota. This funding enabled them to purchase the necessary equipment and supplies for demonstrating the production of maple syrup at McCrory as well as present workshops across eastern South Dakota.

"My vision is to eventually see small-scale commercial maple syrup production in eastern South Dakota," Schaefer said.

Schlenker also believes maple syrup can be an economically feasible home project for anyone with maple trees on their property.

"People through our educational efforts are starting to do it themselves," Schlenker said. "Those who might have a shelter belt have a great opportunity to tap into."

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Related Topics: AGRICULTURE
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