by Dennis Dalman
Despite a rough winter that threatened never to end, spring and summer were sweet, sweet seasons for Shelly Carlson and her family, who live in rural St. Joseph.
In spring, the sap from their maple trees was low in water content but very high in sugar density. And in summer, during the recent Minnesota State Fair, the family members’ hard work paid off when their Wildwood Ranch Pure Maple Syrup won first-place ribbons in two categories and then one of the syrups went on to win Best of Show.
Shelly said she was so happy about the news.“It was quite a surprise,” she said. “We never expect to win, but it sure is sweet when you do.”
And the state fair honors followed two first-place wins earlier this summer in Aitkin at the Minnesota Maple Syrup Producers Association competition. And the year before that, one of the Carlsons’ syrups was named Best of Show by the MMSPA.
Carlson explained the procedure for the state fair contest:
Maple syrup entries are part of the Creative Activities division, along with canned produce, jellies and jams. For the maple syrup contest, there are four categories that can be entered: Golden, Amber, Dark Robust and Very Robust. Carlson entered two bottles of her syrup, one in the Amber category, the other in the Dark Robust category. Those two both won first-place ribbons.
Judges then take the first-place syrups in each of the four categories and compare them to determine Best of Show. Carlson’s Dark Robust was the judges’ favorite.
Judges give points for varying aspects of maple syrup: light transparency (how light shines through the bottled syrup), sugar density, clarity (no sediment) and fourth – and last but certainly not least – taste, which can be scored anywhere from zero to 50 points.
Carlson is not sure of her winning scores because she hasn’t received the score sheets yet from the judges, although she was present at the fair, on Aug. 29, when the winners were announced.
There were 70 entries in the maple-syrup competition.
Many local people who have enjoyed Carlsons’ maple syrup for years will not be surprised at the first-place and best-of-show wins. They love the sweet, sticky stuff, which they buy at area farmers’ markets, as well as at the Carlsons’ home. This year, Shelly is selling the syrup only at the St. Joseph Farmers’ Market, from 3-6 p.m. every Friday by Resurrection Lutheran Church near the Lake Wobegon Trailhead.
Each bottle of syrup is labeled with Wildwood Ranch Poor Maple Syrup over a logo of a horseshoe and four-leaf clover.
“We’ve been blessed by our local customers,” Shelly said, “and also blessed by the Minnesota Street Market in St. Jo(seph) and the St. Joseph Meat Market (those businesses also sell the syrup).”
The Carlsons live about two miles west of Kraemer Lake Wildwood County Park. Their maple syrup operation is dubbed Wildwood Ranch, and the family lives four miles from it.
The family is comprised of Shelly, a part-time events coordinator for St. John the Baptist Parish in Collegeville; husband Tom, a veterinarian who works in St. Joseph, Cold Spring and Paynesville; son Ben, 27, who works for the Nature Conservancy in North Dakota; and daughter Addie, 24, operations manager for the Minnesota Street Market on St. Joseph’s main street. Shelly’s brother, Fred Honer, who lives nearby, also helps with the maple syrup production, including using sap collected from his own maple trees.
On a 30-acre area, the Carlsons and Honer have a total of 1,800 taps, two for each maple tree – 220 taps placed by Honer, 2,580 by the Carlsons.
“A lot of family relations, including several brothers, also help out,” Shelly said.
The maple-syrup making was started in the late 1970s on the same property by Shelly’s parents, Wally and Dorothy Honer, now both deceased. Shelly and Tom took over the operation in 2000.
Making maple syrup is very much a touch-and-go operation because it’s at the mercy of fickle weather. This past spring was highly unusual, more so than most springs, because there just wasn’t enough sap. Production was only about two-thirds of an average year, Shelly noted.
“What saved us is the high sugar content (of the sap),” she added.
Last spring, the Carlsons bottled 335 gallons of syrup, two-thirds of the production the year before. On an average spring, it takes about 40 to 50 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of maple syrup. This past spring, Shelly noted, it took only 32 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup (less water content, more sugar content in the sap).
“Every year is different, but the past one was very difficult because of all the snow and the extreme cold,” she said. “It was hard to empty buckets and bags, and some of the lines would freeze up.”
A perfect stretch for maple-syrup making is a temperature between 20 and 40 degrees. In 2016 and 2017, the Carlsons began collecting sap toward early February and were finished by the end of March. This past spring, because of the freaky cold weather and snow, they didn’t finish until the end of April.
This is how the Carlsons make maple syrup:
Sap is collected by taps in the maple trees. A vacuum tube system brings the sap to the sugar shack where it’s boiled down. A reverse-osmosis machine removes some of the excess water from the sap. A wood-fire condenser then boils the sap down to its delicious syrupy consistency before the bottling and labeling begin.
Do the Carlsons enjoy their own syrup?
“Oh yes!” Shelly said. “We use a lot of it in our coffee – milk and maple syrup with coffee. It’s very good.”
Anyone interested in maple-syrup making is welcome to attend a meeting at St. John’s University campus of the Minnesota Maple Syrup Producer’s Association. It’s scheduled for 8:30 a.m. (registration) Saturday, Sept. 29, at the Peter Engel Science Center on the campus. There will be tasting and evaluation of syrups at the meeting. And then participants will tour the Carlsons’ sugar shack, the sugar shack of another maple-syrup producer, Randy Zimmer, and a final stop at the Milk and Honey Apple Cidery – all in the St. Joseph area.