With warmer weather on the way, many college students are looking forward to backyard parties, spring break and graduation. The only thing on MU student Travis Molitor’s mind is how many gallons of sap he can collect before summer arrives.
Molitor, a senior plant sciences student, sells maple syrup he makes from sugar maple trees he taps back home.
The young business owner runs his syrup operation from his parents’ 18-acre property in Wright City, Missouri. The property is mostly steep, wooded hillsides.
“I have 37 trees on lines where they are all connected and flow into a central collecting tank,” he said. “I have another 100 sugar maple trees on buckets, 22 walnuts, and 14 sycamores.”
Molitor said he got the idea to begin farming maple syrup from a movie.
“The idea came from a scene in the Hunger Games,” he said. “It was the part when Katniss taps a spile [a type of spigot] into a tree to get water.”
Sometime thereafter, Molitor asked his parents for some taps for Christmas. He began his business with five trees close to his house.
“The first year I didn’t cook it right, and it came out more like sweet water,” he said. “Well I kept at it each year for about four years before I decided that I could take this little hobby of mine to the next level.”
At the time, Molitor was managing a kettle corn stand and learning the inner workings of running a small business. He sold his maple syrup under the kettle corn business’s name just to try things out.
Molitor soon realized that to take his business a step forward, he was going to have to invest some real money.
“I was not confident, but I invested,” he said. “I told people about it to make sure I would follow through.”
Molitor tapped 42 trees that year.
MU Tucker Greenhouse manager, Barbara Sonderman, remembers the day Molitor brought a jar of his homemade maple syrup to her office.
“I took him upstairs to the office of MU professor, Bethany Stone, and she promptly bought some of his maple syrup,” Sonderman said.
Molitor was motivated by his first sale and decided it was time to brand his business.
“I was taking soils science with Patricia Quakenbush, and we had to do a project where we went online and took a soil survey test,” he said. “I tested the soil where all my maples were and found that the ground underneath the trees contained a tiny bit of organic matter then just all rocks.”
“I said that sounds good, Rocky Root,” Molitor said as he smiled.
He added “Farm” at the end so he could expand into other areas of agriculture. Rocky Root Farm is solely owned and operated by Molitor.
Molitor said making maple syrup is not easy to do in a state like Missouri. He starts tapping trees in January and leaves the taps in until there is a week and a half of consistent 70 degree weather. Predicting when that will happen is the hard part, Molitor said.
“The weather fluctuates like crazy here,” he said.
Optimal sap flow occurs when there are sequences of freeze-thaw weather. This means temperatures drop below or near freezing overnight and then reach around 50 degrees during the day. During this time, trees are converting stored energy into sugar. This sugar is what forms sap. On a sunny day, sap will travel up and down the inside of a tree. If the tree is tapped, sap will spill out.
Molitor said he relies on his younger brother and sister to collect the sap for him while he is at school. If the weather is nice, they will go out and collect sap every couple of days.
“The goal this year is to collect 2,000 gallons, and right now, I only have around 250 gallons,” he said. “It’s going to pick up here in the next couple of months.”
Once the sap is collected, Molitor has to cook it to make maple syrup. He cooks the sap in an 8-by-16 foot “sugar shack” he and his dad built.
“A common misconception is that the syrup comes straight out of the tree, and as much as I wish this were true, it’s not,” Molitor said. “Because the sap looks like water, it’s the process of cooking it that causes the dark color.”
States that have a large maple syrup industry also have specific syrup-to-sap ratios. For example, in Vermont, 40 gallons of sap produces one gallon of syrup making the ratio 40-to-1. Molitor’s ratio is about a 55-to-1 for sugar maple trees and a 70-to-1 for walnut trees.
“People always ask what all I put into the sap to make my maple syrup,” he said. “I tell them that all I put in is time. It takes about 12 hours to cook 55 gallons of sap, and I have to pay attention to it constantly.”
The Missouri Department of Conservation declares that, “Only the dedicated few can claim the title of ‘maple sugar farmer.’”
Judging by Molitor’s actions, they are right. Molitor is not only dedicated to his business, but to school as well.
“It’s hard to be a student and run a business,” he said. “I have virtually no free weekends during the spring semester. Since I have to go home every weekend I have to get all my assignments turned in by Friday.”
Sonderman said she admires Molitor for his work ethic.
“He is one of the hardest working people I know, and he’s still just an undergraduate student,” she said.
Even though school gets in the way sometimes, Molitor said he has MU to thank for getting him into this business.
“I once took a class called Green Industry Bidding with Tim Moloney, and it was really a turning point for me,” Molitor said. “He [Moloney] said the most difficult business is the green industry and that if you can figure this out you can do anything.”
“After I took that class, I knew I was going to start a business,” he said.
Most of Molitor’s customers are family friends. He also sells to some MU professors and a handful of students.
“I think he’s got the maturity of someone who has been in business for themselves for years,” Sonderman said. “He’s so resourceful.”
In addition to making maple syrup, Molitor has tried wood carving, wine making and bee keeping.
“The characteristic that got me to where I am is when I read about something, I’ve got to try it out,” he said. “I’ve lost three beehives and only have a little jar of honey to show for it.”
The young entrepreneur said after he graduates, he wants to expand his operation.
“I’m going to need a lot more land,” Molitor said.
As for now, Molitor plans to sell his syrup at the Lake Saint Louis Farmers and Artists Market. The market opens Saturday, April 1 and will run every Saturday thereafter.