by Heidi L. Everett
“If you can get under the sweet steam and get a whiff, it’s worth it,” Shelly Carlson said to 14 guests standing outside the Wildwood Ranch sugar shack in St. Joseph on March 28.
Visitors came from Avon, Clear Lake, Freeport, Paynesville and St. Wendel for one of several tours this season to learn about the maple-syrup-making process that has been part of the Carlson and Honer families for 40 years, and a part of Wildwood-Kraemer Lake County Park since 2007.
“This all started in a little shanty up in the woods,” Shelly explained.
Maple syrup started flowing in the 1970s on this same property overseen by Shelly’s late parents, Wally and Dorothy Honer. Shelly and her husband, Tom, took over the operation in 2000, and it’s been a family tradition for them and their two kids, Ben and Addie, ever since.
Addie, who graduated from College of St. Benedict and earned an MBA from St. Cloud State University, lights up as she shares stories of running through the Maple Tree forest and swimming in the creek as a kid. During maple-syrup season, though, this luscious landscape is work.
In January and February each year, tubing is repaired or replaced from damage most often done by branches, squirrels and deer. Then, it takes two people two days in March to drill more than 1,000 taps before the taps are hooked up to the tubes and a vacuum system.
“We use a vacuum pump that’s the same as the ones used for dairy cows,” Ben Carlson shared while showing the blue sap pipelines that crisscross 40 acres of woods like a giant game of Cat’s Cradle amongst the trees. He graduated from St. John’s University with a degree in environmental studies.
The tubes must slope downhill for sap to efficiently reach the pumphouse, which is located at the lowest spot in the woods along the creek, Ben said.
“As long as we follow the creek, we know the lines are going downhill,” he said.
For trees that are lower in the rolling landscape, gravity can’t do its work, so more than 300 bags and buckets hang from tree trunks in a more traditional sap-gathering process.
Dan and Nola Dickhausen of Winstead were on the tour to hear different ideas about the syrup-making process.
“We do maple syrup on a much smaller level,” Dan said. “Thing is about the lines? They are easier than buckets, but you either have to take them down or dodge them.”
Back at the sugar shack, which was built with wood from nearby trees, the tour covered how reverse osmosis (which has been in operation since 2017) has improved sustainability by cutting their need for firewood to a third and cutting their production time to a quarter.
Wildwood Ranch averages 500 gallons of sap a day. Generally, 38 gallons of sap are needed to produce 1 gallon of syrup once water is removed. Through reverse osmosis, only 10 gallons are needed. Then, final evaporation boils the sap to 216 degrees before it’s bottled.
Sandy Statz of Clear Lake signed up for the tour because she was interested in the process. She’s a fan of maple syrup and uses it daily.
“I drizzle it on plain yogurt with sliced bananas for breakfast,” she said.
If you’d like to try drizzling Wildwood Ranch Maple Syrup on your breakfast of choice, visit Local Blend, Minnesota Street Market, the St. Joseph Farmers’ Market and other local businesses to purchase a bottle or two.