Maple syrup flows liquid gold at Plymouth farm

March 24 open house offers insight to maple syrup process

Wisconsin State Farmer

PLYMOUTH - Barbara Drewry-Zimmerman looks at wooded land and wonders how many maple trees are growing in the woods. It's a trait she got from her father, David Drewry.

Tubes attached to splines collect sap from maple trees at Drewry Farms in Plymouth. Each spring splines are tapped into a different spot further down the trunk of the tree and removed at the end of the season.

He bought the farm where Drewry Farms sits near Plymouth because of the maple trees in the woods. Then he bought a couple of farms to the east, because of the woods.

"The woods were what he absolutely loved," said Barbara. "If he could have done maple syrup and not milked cows, he would have been a very happy person." 

As a child, David would come down from Marinette on the weekends and make maple syrup with a hired hand. When he got married, they decided to do it even more. 

Barbara has fond memories of her mother making grilled cheese as the wood stove boiled down the sap. 

About 11-12 years ago the sap house David built on the farm burned down. Barbara said her parents were in their 80s at the time and thought that would be the end of making maple syrup, but Barbara and her three siblings thought, "Nope, we really enjoy it."

David Drewry loved giving tours and showing kids how maple syrup was made. The original pipeline at Drewry Farms laid on the ground and flowed by gravity into tanks.

"Plus with the interest in natural foods, I could see there was going to be more of a market for it," said Baraba. "People were looking at it in a different light, rather than just something to put on their pancakes."

Liquid gold

In a good year, Barbara's parents made about 300-400 gallons of maple syrup. Now the farm is averaging about 2,500 gallons a year with a suspended pipeline, which gives three-fourths more sap than just buckets and bags because of the vacuum.

A vacuum pump by their house runs down to the releaser in one line and back up in another "and it literally milks the tree," Barbara explained. 

"The last couple of weeks, people with buckets and bags haven't been collecting a thing, but we've been collecting sap," said Barbara. "Not a lot, but we've still been collecting."

The day the Wisconsin State Farmer visited Drewry Farms, sunshine warmed the trees on the southernly sloped woods and the sap was running well. 

They start tapping the trees around the second week of February. Freezing temperatures at night and warm days get sap flowing, but Barbara said there can be sunny days barely above freezing and the sap will run.

A web of vacuum lines runs from tree to tree throughout the woods at Drewry Farms in Plymouth. They get three-fourths more sap from maple trees by using a vacuum system compared to buckets and bags.

With about 6,000 taps on the farm's 120 acres of woods, it takes about two weeks to tap all the trees with help from family and friends. 

While sugar maple trees have the best flavor, the woods on Drewry Farms has some red maple, some silver maple and some swamp maple.

"If it's a maple we tap it," Barbara said. "We are very careful on our quality and how it tastes. We really focus on the processing. The quicker you can get it from the tree to the RO (reverse osmosis) and over the evaporator, the better off you are."

Once temperatures hit 40 - 50 degrees and the trees start to bud, sap stops running, sometimes within 12 hours.

"You kind of have to know your woods and know how it's going to work," Barbara added. 

Syrup making

A wagon with a 1,000 gallon tank is used to collect the sap at each releaser station on the farm.

At the processing facility, the sap is run through the reverse osmosis (RO) system two times to remove water from the sap and speed up the concentration time. Sap comes into the processing facility at about 2 - 3 percent sugar. After two times through the RO system the sugar is up to 18 - 20 percent before it goes to the evaporator. 

A spreader is converted to a sap collecting vehicle by adding a stainless steel tank at Drewry Farms in Plymouth.

The sap is then run through the evaporator, where it is boiled down. It is then put into a finishing pan and run through a press to remove sugarsand, or niter, which are mineral deposits which are concentrated during the evaporation process.

Barbara said they put the syrup in 55 gallon barrels and bottle it as needed, since they sell about 35 percent of their syrup at farmers markets. Drewry Farms maple products can also be found at some specialty stores, like Cedar Valley Cheese.

Maple products

At the Drewry Farms open house from 11 a.m. - 3 pm., on Saturday, March 24, people can learn everything they wanted to know about the maple syrup process. Visitors can take a tractor ride up "to the hill" to watch the process in action or just walk through the woods. Tours of the processing facility will also be available. 

The best part will be sampling the maple products made on Drewry Farms or products made by any of the vendors joining the Drewry family for the event. 

"People have to get out of the mindset that it's (maple syrup) only for pancakes," added Barbara. 

The processing facility at Drewry Farms in Plymouth takes thousands of gallons of sap and boils it down to pure maple syrup. The farm averages about 2,500 gallons of maple syrup a year.

Research is providing more information about vitamins and minerals in maple syrup, "because the tree roots go so deep and and they pull so much out of the soil," Barbara pointed out. 

According to the Canadian Nutrient File and United States Department of Agriculture Nutrient Database, a one-fourth cup of maple syrup provides 95 percent of the recommended daily value of manganese and 37 percent of riboflavin. Honey contains 4 percent manganese and 2 percent riboflavin. 

Drewry Farms sells all three grades of maple syrup. 

"People are moving more to the darker grades, the strong taste, because it holds flavor better in cooking," said Barbara. "You can use maple syrup to sweeten in a lot of baking."

A finishing pan (back) holds sap before it goes through the press to remove sugarsand, which is slimy or gritty material produced by boiling sap into syrup.

Barbara drizzles maple syrup on vegetables, on ham, turkey and salmon.  

From her windows, Barbara can look out at the web-like lines running between about 1,000 taps on the 20 acres next to their house. 

When maple syrup season is over, they will pull all the taps, flush the lines with water and isopropyl alcohol to get rid of the sugar and help prevent mold from building up. But her days of walking through the woods will dwindle as her nephew, Neil Cowhig, continues to take over the business. 

"We're in the process of one generation coming in and the older generation fading out," said Barbara. 

Looking back at her ancestors coming to the Plymouth area from Vermont in 1847, "they probably started making maple syrup fairly soon after they settled," said Barbara. 

Maple syrup was the sugar and sweetner that most farmers used. 

"I feel a strong responsibility to continue my heritage," Barbara added. "God has gifted it to us, and we have to move it forward."