Bringing back the legacy of an Iowa farm can be sentimental and sweet—sometimes literally. Nestled in between corn and soybean fields in Clayton County are acres of woods home to maple syrup trees whose natural crop has been savored across the Midwest thanks to Great River Maple, Iowa Farm Bureau’s Renew Rural Iowa (RRI) Entrepreneur Award recipient.
Great River Maple, owned and operated by Dan and Dorinda Potter, produces certified organic maple syrup and cream which they also incorporate into other products like sugar, granola and even maple cotton candy. This Garnavillo farm has a rich history stemming back to the 1800s when maple trees were tapped to help improve the taste of the whiskey also being made. Dan Potter was excited to bring this legacy back to his family farm. “What I’ve got in that bottle is time—my grandfather’s time, my dad’s time and my time all put together and mixed with sunshine,” he says.
Great River Maple is home to 8,500 trees that yielded 183,000 gallons of sap in 2021. On average, it can take 60 gallons of sap to equal one gallon of syrup, Potter explains. The season for maple syrup is late February to early April, however, depending on frost conditions the season can be as short as 12 days or up to 8 weeks long.
While some may envision syrup-making as a bucket collecting the sap from a tapped maple tree, the process of making the high-quality products at Great River Maple is much more extensive. Their sap leaves the tree and enters lateral lines to move the raw product through many stages from filtration, evaporation, cleaning and storage. A single tree can also produce different taste profiles from “grade A rich” with a buttery finish to “robust” with a hearty flavor, and those flavors can fluctuate by the hour, keeping the Potter family on their toes. The trees also produce commercial grade syrup for wine, whiskeys and beer and delicate used to make maple cream and maple sugar.
Potter’s daughter, Alicia, has found her home within the family business in the product development kitchen. While she’s been all over the country, she chose to stay in her hometown of Garnavillo to help grow Great River Maple. “It’s a beautiful part of Iowa where we live, and it’s also the challenge that keeps me here. I like how there’s always something new to discover and a new problem to solve.” On the list of Alicia’s “discoveries” is how to make a maple mustard, maple barbecue sauce and a spicy maple syrup.
Great River Maple sells in stores across Iowa from Sioux City to Davenport and at farmer’s markets. They also have a presence in the urban cities of St. Louis, Kansas City, Omaha and parts of Minnesota and Wisconsin. “It’s always inspiring to see successful businesses like Great River Maple realize their potential within small town Iowa,” says Adam Koppes, Iowa Farm Bureau senior investment manager. “We’re seeing more and more families like the Potters who are creating a product that they can share across state lines and into large metropolitan areas while adding value and leadership to the rural community in which they reside.”
Mark Reinig of Iowa State University’s Center for Industrial Research and Service (CIRAS) says Great River Maple is helping give name recognition and employment opportunities for northeast Iowa. “We’re glad to promote this with Iowa Farm Bureau as a locally-owned entrepreneurial business. This is a great family-run maple operation. It’s making a product out of a natural resource we’ve always had, but now it’s bringing that to a commercial side,” he says. “They’ve grown exponentially over the years, and we see great things from them in the future.”
RRI is an Iowa Farm Bureau initiative that supports new and existing businesses through education, mentoring and financial resources. Since its inception, RRI has helped create more than $125M in economic impact for rural communities. For more information about RRI and upcoming business seminars, visit http://programs.iowafarmbureau.com/RRI/