Mid-Missourians seek out syrupy rewards tapping maples

On an early January morning footsteps were imprinted in the woods just outside of Ashland, Missouri. Despite being from various places ranging from Massachusetts and Italy to small-town Missouri, individuals braved 30 degree temperatures to reach one common goal: finding sweet rewards in the “sugar bush.”

Ben Knapp, professor and superintendent of the University of Missouri’s Baskett Research Center, stated the farm is unlike other MU research farms as it does not have a working staff. When explaining the process of producing maple syrup, he said it is most beneficial to tap the trees and insert the spires facing south so sunlight can promote the flow of sap. Spires act as a spigot, which allow the sap to flow from the tree and into a collecting reciprocal.

Volunteers familiarized themselves with the traditional method of using metal spires to tap into the tree using a five-gallon bucket to collect the sap. They also tried their hands in a new method originally introduced on the East Coast using plastic spires and sacks. Deemed “sap sacks” the blue plastic bags are able to collect three gallons of sap and are efficient as less impurities are able to enter the collecting vessel.

While locations such as Vermont or Canada might be more well known for  maple syrup production, it is a process that can be successfu in regions that possess similar characteristics. A family from Italy participating in the weekend events attempted to produce maple syrup on their farm back home, but soon discovered the outdoor conditions were not favorable. They were excited to learn more about the process through hands-on experience at Baskett Farm. Their outlook was to try again upon their return with the in-depth knowledge gained.

Others came to the event because of their love for the outdoors, interest in the novelty of making syrup, or even desire to taste the end result. In spite of different reasons for interest, everyone left with encouraging stories to tell of their experience.

The season for producing maple syrup spans from late January through March. Knapp said the syrup produced at the beginning of the season is light in color and has a mild flavor. As months progress, the color deepens and flavors become more pronounced. Temperature is crucial in allowing maple trees to release sap. It must reach over 40 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and decrease to freezing temperatures at night. This action of excreting sap is similar to rain condensing in clouds, which is then released through precipitation.

Kristin Harper, who is working toward her Ph.D. in classical studies at MU, was one of many who spent her day familiarizing herself with the tapping techniques.

“(It was) a very enjoyable and enlightening treat!” she sai.  “It was a great experience to see something that was once done so often and was once our main source of sugar, but now seems so complex and too difficult for the layman to do. I was thankful to learn about what goes into the maple tapping process and I hope to one day do it myself.”

Many group members were surprised 40 gallons of sap are required to produce one gallon of maple syrup. Knapp told the volunteers that tapping 100 trees on the south side would allow for maximum flow. With the average tree producing three gallons each day, there would be plenty of product. Other concerns of damaging the trees were put to rest when Knapp said the wound is able to repair itself much like skin is able heal, leading to a scar. The process only requires one percent of the tree’s exported energy and does not cause a harmful amount of stress on the tree. Trees are closely monitored for bacteria growing near the spire’s entrance wound and are re-tapped in another location if this situation arises, Knapp said.

The process of tapping maple trees on the 2,200 acre Baskett Farm began in 2012 when the University received a grant for a boiler. Knapp is hopeful to turn this project into an organization for students or a course offered through the University. He said there is a lot to be learned and researched about the process of tapping maple trees. This includes the physiological aspects of the trees harnessing gas to survive through the winter and different soil types of geographical regions creating unique flavor profiles from various nutrients found in the soil.

Along with learning about the process, volunteers are pleasantly rewarded for their assistance. Individuals normally have the opportunity to receive a share of the syrup produced and the remaining product is distributed to College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources faculty and staff. There will be more opportunities at the Baskett Farm to assist in burning impurities from the sap and tapping trees for further production this spring.

> Photos by Nichole Gann

Nichole Gann

About the Author Nichole Gann

Growing up in the farming community of Marshall, Missouri, I gained an appreciation for agriculture, which is sometimes overlooked. I was involved in the 4-H Shooting Sports program for nine years and competed four years at the National 4-H Shooting Sports competition. My time learning various life skills in the program provided me with a greater foundation to serve the interests of our community through agricultural communication. It gives me reassurance to assist youth in becoming leaders of tomorrow through my service as a 4-H volunteer. I have an appreciation for all things old, from listening to vintage records, traveling to historic locations, quilting, wandering through antique stores and typing on my manual typewriter. I find that we can all benefit from expanding our minds, whether it is by understanding our past or planning for our future. I look forward to serving you this semester as a reporter for CAFNR Corner Post.