Just about the time winter becomes unbearable and true spring is still an imagined, still distant - but sure to come, there is another season to be enjoyed - maple syrup season.
When the night temperatures are below freezing and daytime temperatures rise to the 40s, the sap in the sugar maple tree begins to flow. That's when the maple syrup makers head to the woods.
Most everyone has probably purchased maple syrup for their pancakes but chances are unless they live in the northeastern U.S. states from Minnesota to Maine and the Canadian provinces that border on those states, they don't really know what maple syrup is.
David Cook who owns Cook's Woods, Fennimore, explains: "Maple syrup making is an art that has changed little over time. Native North Americans taught European settlers how to extract the sap of maple trees and boil it into the delicious, versatile sweetener that remains popular today."
No, like many things, maple syrup did not come from Europe with early settlers; it was being made here long before America became America. Historical records indicate that Native Americans were tapping maple trees in 1540, and there are written observations of Native American maple sugaring - or transforming sap into maple sugar - in 1557.
But by the 1700s, Native Americans and European settlers alike were using iron and copper kettles to make maple syrup and sugar.
It wasn't until the Civil War that the maple syrup industry was really born, with the introduction of the tin cans and the invention of metal spouts and evaporator pans. Most early producers were dairy farmers who made maple syrup and sugar during the off-season of the farm for their own use and for extra income.
Wisconsin is ranked the fourth (sometimes third) leading maple syrup producer with a production of 155,000 gallons in 2011 which was well above 2010's 117,000 gallons. Last year's production was virtually nothing because of the unseasonable, warm spring. Vermont, the perennial leader, produces some 1.1 million gallons in 2011 followed by New York and Maine.
The Wisconsin Maple Syrup Producers Association (WMSPA) is the foremost recognized maple community in the state and acts as the member's information source through meetings and publications and is the representative on state and federal issues.
Gretchen Grape, Holcomb, WMSPA executive director, says the association is made up of some 300 members who are listed and shown on a map on their website (wismaple.org).
She indicates a lot of maple syrup in Wisconsin is made by many thousands of people - most of whom are hobbyists - doing it for pure enjoyment and enough syrup for a few pancake meals.
David and Barbara Cook own Cook's Woods at Fennimore where they raise corn, soybeans and Christmas trees and produce some 100-125 gallons of maple syrup per year from about 500 taps (about two per tree).
"In the early spring, when daytime temperatures are above freezing and nighttime temperatures are below, taps are driven into the thin layer of wood just beneath the bark of the farm's maple trees," Dave explains on their website (cookswoods.biz).
"Sap flows from the trees into a network of tubing and then into a series of barrels and bulk tanks. The sap is collected from these containers and transported to the sugar house where it is boiled into syrup using a traditional wood fired evaporator.
"Our maple sap usually contains 2-3 percent sugar as it is collected from the trees ... contains 66 percent sugar when it is bottled, and it takes approximately 40 gallons of sap to boil down to one gallon of maple syrup.
"The syrup is then bottled on the farm and sold locally. Its flavor, like that of all site-specific maple syrups, is unique to its location."
"We are about as small a commercial maple syrup operation as you will run into," Dave Cooks says. "This was my home farm where we raised dairy cows, later hogs and now cash crops." (Note: David has a M.S. in Animal Science and Barbara is a Methodist minister in Lancaster.)
The Cooks hosted an open house on April 6 in which dozens of visitors, young and older, came to look, learn, taste and buy maple syrup.
Peter and Dawn Roth, who operate Roth Sugar Bush at Cadott (rothsugarbush.com),
have 7,000 taps collecting maple sap this year. "Finally we are having a normal year," Pete says. "We first cooked sap about April 1 and will probably end about the 20th."
Peter, who also sells and service maple syrup equipment in a multi state area, says making maple syrup is a growing business. "The price of maple syrup is high enough to allow a producer to makes some money," he says. "The fact that woodlands on which maple trees are tapped and sap harvested means the land is taxed as agricultural rather than recreational, is a big factor."
Roth says that ninety percent of the maple syrup producers in the Midwest have 2000 taps or less with a half a dozen or so with 20,000-30,000 taps.
It's a growing industry," he says. "Consumers are learning about maple syrup and are willing to pay for this high quality product and the food ingredient industry is also using more maple syrup as a sweetener."
Anderson's Maple Syrup, Inc. at Cumberland, (andersibsmaplesyrup.com)
has been a family-run and organized business for over 80 years. Steve Anderson is the third generation to carry on the family tradition started by his grandfather Paul in the early '20s as "just a little hobby to put some syrup on the table." His son Norman (Steve's father) followed and the business grew to where the company is the largest packager of maple syrup in the Midwest. They are also a major supplier of equipment and supplies to the industry.
Although the Anderson family had some 18,000 maple taps (all flowing into buckets) in the 1970s, the family today devotes its efforts to buying maple syrup from other producers, packaging it and selling it nationwide. "We offer a service for those producers who are not big enough to package and market their own maple syrup," Steve says.
In the 1960s, plastic tubing that carried maple sap from tap to tank came on the scene and many of the larger producers replaced the labor intensive pails and plastic bags they were using.
A few years ago, a system wherein the tubing is connected to a vacuum pump, not unlike those used in a milking system, came on the scene. Vacuum users say they can get a 50-100 percent increase in sap yield without damage to the tree.
As with most every labor intensive enterprise, there are products on the market that will make the maple syrup process, easier, faster and more fool proof. The question: Will you make enough maple syrup to pay for high technology or are you doing it for fun and self satisfaction? If so, you can still buy plastic bags and most any kind of older type of equipment.
Whatever, you can't beat the end product - Wisconsin Maple Syrup - for taste and enjoyment and as the first "for sure" sign that spring is here.
John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications, a Madison-based agricultural information and consulting company. He can be reached at 608-222-0624 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.