Roots are in the woods
Ralph Fideldy will tell you up front that his best boyhood memories were created during the maple syrup season, working with his father in the sugarbush in the 1960’s. Being in the woods, watching winter turn to spring, strongly impacted his life and Ralph claims that those experiences are when “maple got into his blood”.
Ralph, a.k.a. Butch, grew up in Trout Lake, eight miles west of Grand Rapids. He was the third in line with 4 other siblings—all boys! Each spring Ralph’s father would tap 75-80 trees growing across the road from their home. It was a wonderful, busy time with family & friends helping with the tapping, collecting and processing syrup. Butch’s life-long friend, Larry Tanner, helped during these early years and would later become his business partner. His father’s operation was very simple, low tech, with the boiling being kept outdoors. Ralph recalls that at one point, boiling was done on the old hood of a car–probably not recommended today!
Butch was enlisted into the armed forces, and after returning from a tour inViet Nam, Butch made his way back to Grand Rapids. During the 1980’s, Butch and Larry found a beautiful stand of sugar maple owned by Hannah Mining Company and they were able to negotiate a simple lease agreement to tap and process syrup. The two men began to grow the operation, tapping 500 trees, hauling buckets of sap through the woods into a small sugar shack. And at that time, a flat stainless steel pan made by Ralph’s brother was used as an evaporator to boil the sap.
During the 1990’s, Hannah Mining Company began to sell their lands, creating an opportunity of a lifetime for Butch & Larry. After purchasing the land, Butch & Ralph enlisted the help of a professional forester to manage the forest for maple syrup production. Careful selection and harvest helped favor the sugar maple trees by providing more space, more sunlight for the crowns. Proceeds from the sale of timber were directly invested in the business and used to purchase equipment and build a sugar shack with a beautiful wood-fired evaporator.
Learning has always been an essential part of this sticky business, and the MN Maple Syrup Producers Association has been integral to their success. They enjoy networking opportunities with other producers, receiving newsletters and visiting other operations in Minnesota.
Carl Vogt, recently retired from the University of Minnesota Extension, was key to helping Butch’s operation and during one Maple Syrup Producers meeting, provided information on a new system that uses food-grade plastic tubing. Carl talked about how to create a network of conduits to transport the sap through the woods using gravity and a vacuum pump. The overall benefits were the ability to increase production, having it be a cleaner operation and producers found it to be an easier system to use. Hearing about the tubing system convinced Butch it was time to upgrade the operation. Amy, Butch’s wife & chief financial officer, simply confessed “at this point in time is when the hobby ran amuck”.
To learn more about inline systems, Butch joined the International Maple Syrup Producers Institute and has enjoyed rubbing elbows with premiere maple producers in Vermont, Maine, New York, Pennsylvania (80,000 taps!) and Quebec.
With the new inline system, Butch, Larry, Amy & son Troy have grown the operation and are now among the top 10 producers in Minnesota. Currently, this family based business taps 2,400 maples each spring. They collect significant volumes of sap and have recently invested in a reverse osmosis system (RO) . In 2009, Timber Sweet received high honors from the International Maple Syrup Producers Association winning first place for their value-added product “Maple Cream” and 2nd place for their medium grade amber syrup. In 2010 Timber Sweet experienced their biggest season yet,
collecting 47,252 gallons of sap with a 2% sugar content. The season peaked on March 9 (early!) and they collected 2,700 gallons of sap in one day. Production exceeded expectations, boiling down to 1,045 gallons of finished maple syrup.
So what is Butch doing today? Last time we spoke, he was relaxing in the fish house, thinking about putting in some taps. In fact, Butch and Amy have been averaging about 200 taps every afternoon.
More photos from our visit to Timber Sweet:
Checking in with the Peterson farm…
This week we also checked in with John and Mary Peterson, featured in last week’s maple blog post, to see what they are doing this week to get ready for the coming season. John shared:
Beginning March 1, I keep the low and high temps for each day along with any description of the day, ie. partly sunny, drastic weather changes, winds, etc. Each year I start collecting this data in my maple syrup records spreadsheet.”
Also, I have been working on our new sap handling system. I am building an insulated enclosure for sap so we can gravity feed the sap into our evaporator. In the past, we used buckets to dip sap out of containers that sat on the ground. It is insulated to keep the sap from freezing up the valves and fittings at night and to keep it cool on the warm days. We will be able to put ice from our lake in the enclosure if we want. The stand for the tank is made from Red Pine timbers that we planted about 40 years ago! I have been thinning the Red Pine and bringing logs to a sawmill for a number of years. This is the first project using them so it is really meaningful experience.
I am also having to spend a lot of time in hardware stores searching for plumbing fittings, valves . . . Mary cannot understand how this can take so long!
More from the 2011 Minnesota maple blog series
Join us as we follow this exciting season from Minnesota’s north woods with new posts every week! You can find all of the 2011 Minnesota maple blog series content here. You can also sign up to for new Minnesota maple series post notifications by email or your favorite RSS feed reader.