After a late February surprise winter storm blanketed the state in fresh snow, I’ve been on the lookout for any signs that spring is indeed on the way.

While I haven’t seen a robin in the snowdrifts yet, we are getting closer to maple syrup season in Iowa, one of the first sure signs of spring.

Starting in March, several maple syrup festivals kick off across the state, where Iowans can eat their fill of pancakes while also learning more about how maple syrup is made.

Maple syrup production dates back to pioneer times here in Iowa. Native Americans were the first to tap Iowa’s maple trees, and many of these same maple trees still exist in pockets of eastern Iowa.

Iowa is home to more than 50 maple syrup farms, producing about 953 gallons of maple syrup annually, according to the most recent 2007 Census of Agriculture.

For many Iowa farmers, tapping maple trees in the early spring provides an off-season income before they’re back out in the fields planting corn and soybeans.

Iowa farmers collect maple syrup much like our ancestors did, using hand-powered drills to tap into the trees and wood-fired evaporators to boil the clear sap into amber-colored maple syrup.

Maple trees are ready to tap when the daytime temperatures rise above freezing, but the nighttime temperatures dip back below freezing.

Maple syrup varies in color depending on when it was tapped, from light brown in the late winter to deep brown in early spring. The syrup is graded according to its color, not its quality. Grade A syrup is light amber, while grade B syrup is darker and thicker.

Although maple syrup is a sweetener, it does offer nutritional benefits. Maple syrup contains calcium, potassium and small amounts of iron and phosphorus, according to the University of Vermont.

You can also use maple syrup as an alternative to sugar in your favorite recipes. Cornell University recommends replacing 1 cup of granulated sugar with 1 cup of maple syrup. Light-colored maple syrup will add a mild flavor to a recipe, while dark-amber syrup will add more noticeable maple flavor.

If you’re looking for a maple syrup recipe to try at home, Midwest Living magazine has a great collection of recipes on its website:

Written by Teresa Bjork, Teresa is a features Writer for the Iowa Farm Bureau