Dale Green, 71, has had a special relationship with the sugarbush for as long as he can remember.
“Once I decided I should go to the sugarbush instead of school,” recalls Green. “I was in kindergarten and hiked a few miles away from the country school to the (maple syrup) camp.”
Pounding the chalkboard erasers after school didn’t seem like a bad trade-off for a day at the sugarbush.
Today, Green and his wife, Karen, fit the maple syrup camp into their schedule while also raising crops and cattle outside of Castalia.
“Sugarbush was my dad’s pride and joy,” said Dale.
Greens’ Sugarbush, their maple syrup business in southern Winneshiek County, is steeped in family history. The Greens and their family of five daughters, plus grandchildren, are involved in the production. Dale Green’s great-great grandparents started the camp when they homesteaded here from the New England states in 1851. “That’s 10 years before the Civil War began,” he noted, adding that the syrup camp is believed to be the oldest continuous business in the state. Dale and Karen’s grandchildren are the seventh generation in the business.
In the 21st century, the maple syrup still is gathered the old-fashioned way, by buckets and horses. The cooking process has been updated with a huge stainless steel evaporator, but firewood is still the heat source. Green said they used tractors for a few years, to gather the sap, but the snow-covered woods would get torn up. So the family went back to horses.
Hall Everman of Postville guides the stainless steel transport tank through the woods with the steady lead of his two paint draft horses. Dale’s daughter, Jeni Melcher, and her husband, Tom, gather buckets of sap and dump them into the horse-drawn tank. The sap is then transferred to an underground holding tank near the evaporation shack. Tom said the larger operations, such as those in Vermont, use a permanent plastic hose transport system that leads to the holding tank. After cooking, Jeni also does the final filtration and canning of the syrup.
Jim Ludeking of Postville, the evaporator operator, said it takes close to 45 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. The thermometer on the chimney of the evaporator will sometimes reach 1,200 degrees.
“It takes a lot of heat to evaporate the sap,” said Ludeking. Only 2 percent of the sap is sugar, so there’s an art to the evaporation process.
Sap flow depends on the temperature. The ideal weather condition for collecting sap is 25 degrees at night, followed by 45-degree sunny days. “This year, the weather hasn’t played by the rules,” said Dale. “This is the earliest we’ve ever tapped.”
An average season for the 1,250 maple trees will be four to five weeks. “Once the trees start to bud, that’s the end of the season,” said Dale. That means the sap is not coming back down to run. When conditions are perfect, they collect up to 2,200 gallons of sap in a day from 60 acres of woods.
Greens' Sugarbush will host a Maple Festival the last Sunday of March and the first Sunday of April. The Greens provide horse-drawn wagon rides, pony rides for the kids, tours, excellent sausage and pancakes, and lots of pure maple syrup. Green expects to serve close to 2,500 guests.
During the season, Dale Green said visitors are welcome to bring their own containers to purchase fresh syrup. Packaged bottles also are available at the shack from $5 for a half pint, up to $50 per gallon. Syrup is available year-round at Spring Valley Farms near Castalia. Canning the syrup will preserve it if you buy in bulk. “Once you open the bottle, we recommend refrigeration,” he said. “There are no preservatives in our syrup.”